The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

10/06/2006 - 08/07/2006

Production Details

By Edward Albee
Directed by Catherine Downes

Set designer: Nicole Cosgrove
Lighting designer: Phillip Dexter

WARNING! This play contains language and content that may offend.

Confront your boundaries and question your taboos.  What would you do?

Downstage Theatre is delighted to present acclaimed playwright Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?

Edward Albee, the writer of some of America’s most important contemporary plays including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? now turns his attentions to forbidden desire and obsessive love in his funniest and possibly most provocative play yet.

Martin, a celebrated architect at the pinnacle of his career, is forced to confess to his family that he is involved in a relationship that will change their lives forever.  As he struggles to explain himself, the family sink deeper into the awful realisation that something truly terrible has happened to their beautiful world – something so far outside of ‘normal’ that it just might destroy them.

Performance Times
Monday – Thursday 6.30pm
Friday & Saturday 8.00pm
$20 Public Preview Friday 9 June
Post Show Talkback Monday 12 June
Matinee 1 July 4pm

$15 – $35

Downstage – 801 6946 or 

MARTIN - Bruce Phillips
STEVIE - Jennifer Ludlam
ROSS - Peter Hambleton
BILLY - Michael Whalley

Theatre ,

1hr 30 mins, no interval

Dark Humour

Review by Lynn Freeman 16th Jun 2006

Playwright Edward Albee fully expected The Goat or Who is Sylvia? to shock and disgust a number of people when it was first produced a few years ago.

He softens it with a lot of humour and that humour is very much emphasised in Cathy Downes’ production of the play. Maybe that softens the "shock" element, or maybe it takes more than bestiality to shock Kiwi audiences, but there were no walk outs and few (until the final scene) intakes of breath.

Of course Albee’s play is not about man-goat love but the idea is a great attention grabber. Actually, if it was treated more like The Crying Game and audiences were sworn to secrecy about Sylvia’s identity, it would make for a much more powerful event. Too late now.

Martin has the perfect life – a wife he adores, international fame and wealth as an architect, a son to be proud of and a secret that will destroy it all; Sylvia, a goat who he loves heart, body and soul – yes, soul. His wife Stevie is understandably devastated and as we all know, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

They’ve had an understanding over the years, to forgive each other for behaviour no matter how awful. Whether Martin is genuinely in love with Sylvia, poor scapegoat that she is, or whether he is simply and eloquently justifying a perverted sexual longing to himself and others, it’s too awful. Everything is shattered – quite literally.

This is the third recent production where Jennifer Ludlam is cast as a tormented American woman and she does it, once more, with style. Bruce Phillips seems far less comfortable in the role of Martin playing it too much on one anguished level. The excellent Peter Hambleton, too, feels somehow out of place as Ross, the friend who dobs in Martin to Sylvia. Michael Walley, looking disconcertingly like Prince Harry, makes son Billy a cauldron of teenage angst and sexual confusion.

The production will settle in after an opening night that didn’t quite gel, not helped by accents which were all over the show.

Nicole Cosgrove’s apartment set is not only practical, having to cope with mass destruction, it looks a million dollars.

This play certainly is thought provoking, with Albee’s devastating one-liners throughout to undercut and emphasise the drama.


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Goat-sex play tests the limits of audience tolerance

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 12th Jun 2006

American theatre is awash with plays about family life. The minor playwrights have written cosy family comedies like Life with Father and Lost in Yonkers, but the major writers like O’Neill, Williams and Miller have shown, with deliberate imitations of classical Greek tragedy, families torn asunder by parricide, rape, incest, and cannibalism.

Edward Albee, testing the limits of tolerance of a modern audience – the ancient Greeks would have taken it in their stride – joins these major writers with a play that has the portentous subtitle of Notes toward a Definition of Tragedy. The theatre has become cautious, Albee has said, and people may want something safe and a nice night out but as far as I’m concerned it’s a waste of time if you write a play and leave an audience where you found them.

The hero, Martin, is a highly esteemed, award-winning architect, happily married, cultured, witty, and worldly. He is a modern day hero who, as his wife Stevie says, brings his marriage down to nothing by, as their son Billy says, digging a pit so deep that none of them will ever be able to climb out of it. The pit is Martin loving and having sex with Sylvia, a goat.

As Cathy Downes points out in her excellent programme commentary the play is intentionally structured to engage the audience. The first scene is a boulevard comedy in which the perfect couple, Martin and Stevie, at one point briefly parody Noel Coward, even though Martin jokingly mentions that the Eumenides may be hovering outside. The second scene is a drama in which Martin reveals his secret to his best friend Ross, and the final scene is a tragedy that concludes with a hint of the possibility of redemption.

As we know from the comedy that underscored the pain in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee can create laughter in the most unlikely of situations. In The Goat the comedy comes perilously close to diminishing the power of the play, or at least it seemed to be doing so on the opening night at Downstage judging by the laughter from the audience at what I would have thought were inappropriate moments.

The one-liners, the theatrical in-jokes, and the jokes about semantics, particularly over the use of the relative pronoun, which Martin and Stevie make even in moments of devastating emotional crisis, while often very funny, give the play a too cosy or safe atmosphere. When Billy, who is gay, casually thanks his father during a highly charged scene for sending him to an all-boys school one suspects the joke was too good to resist.

Still, Peter Hambleton (Ross) and Michael Whalley (Billy) give solid support to Bruce Phillips as Martin and Jennifer Ludlam as Stevie who are in devastating form, playing the comedy expertly and the tragedy with a rawness that will in a day or two silence the unwanted laughter as the balance between comedy and tragedy is found in this gripping production.


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Conundrums worth confronting

Review by John Smythe 11th Jun 2006

In the best tradition of absurdist theatre, Edward Albee has taken an absurd premise to a logical conclusion in order to scrutinise and satirise modern life.

His tri-titled play, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia (Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy), unfolds in three scenes that progress through comedy and drama to tragedy. It proposes that Martin, an architect at the top of his game who remains deeply in love with his wife Stevie and has always been faithful to her, has fallen in love with a goat. He has called the goat Sylvia and the relationship is sexual.

Their student son Billy, whom they’ve sent to a boys-only private school, is gay and – quite normally – needs his parents to keep his known world on its axis while he seeks some degree of equilibrium in unknown territory. His love is inextricably unconditional but it is sorely tested in this scenario.

Martin’s longest-lasting friend, Ross, makes a magazine programme for cable TV. He either uses his position to advance Martin’s career or feeds off his fame. The way he sees it, his equal love for Martin and Stevie compels him to reveal, in a letter to Stevie, what Martin has confessed to him.

In compelling us to engage with this as a logical possibility, Albee also ensures our emotional buttons get pressed. Most people will feel some degree of empathy with each character then question the actions they take. At the heart of it all lies the unanswerable question: what is love?

Certainly Martin has crossed a line but in his own mind he truly believes that beyond – or in the process of – connecting physically with her hind quarters, he is communing with Sylvia’s soul. Does this make him the only honest lover in a world full of hypocrisy, or as delusional as world leaders and religious fanatics who commit the atrocities of war in the name of God?

My take on it (and everyone will have their own) is that Martin’s response to Sylvia’s eyes – to the way she looks at him – constitutes narcissistic love. Sylvia cannot be his intellectual or emotional equal. She is a blank screen on which he projects self-love. Her innocently animalistic compliance allows him to achieve sexual catharsis without fear of being challenged, by her at least. And because it’s a whole new exciting experience, he elevates it to the status of epiphany.

Meanwhile his love and respect for Stevie remains fuelled in part by a brain-butting game of semantic pedantry that they’ve played for so long, it has become automatic. It even surfaces when their passions peak in confronting this crisis, either as a manifestation of what locks them together or as a valve to release the emotional pressure, so they won’t explode.

The Goat is a play full of challenges, with the first and the greatest being faced by the actors and their director. Without their absolute and unconditional commitment to the points of view of their characters, moment by moment amid emotional and rational upheaval, it could easily play as silly rather than absurdist, or pretentious rather than penetrating.

Catherine Downes and her cast rise to the occasion with spirited alacrity. Bruce Phillips’ Martin and Jennifer Ludlam’s Stevie fit each other like a pair of old slippers, albeit with tap-shoe toe-caps for snappy footwork and spurs to keep each other alert. Doubtless their Court Theatre season in these roles last year, with Downes directing, has been to their advantage, although I’m assured this production is very different.

Memorable for her eviscerating Martha – in Colin McColl’s Court Theatre production of Albee’s most famous play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which played at Downstage in 2002 – and following her sadly deluded Linda in Death of a Salesman at Circa (reviewed 2 April), Ludlam explores a very different persona in Stevie. Starting in a happy cruise mode, sharp but complacent, her subsequent journey through incredulity and catharsis to a dramatically resolving action worthy of Greek tragedy is all the more powerful for its utter credibility.

I cannot reveal her final act but in the build-up she brings the Greek tradition of breaking ceramics (created by Anneke Borren) to a whole new level. And all the way through, no-one could fail to empathise.

More surprising are the moments the play offers for us to feel empathy with Martin, fuelled by Phillips’ total faith in him. Although he knows he has transgressed a social norm, if not the natural order, Martin’s refusal to conform with expectations seems almost honourable. But for me, at least, the temptation to align with his viewpoint is tantamount to accepting a Bush regime justification for war. Only when I let my brain engage once more do I see the hubris in his actions. (Alternative interpretations welcome, via Comments.)

Michael Whalley fits the role of Billy, the kid (I can see Albee smirking as he named him), like a glove. To wilfully mix my metaphors, we share his rollercoaster ride all the way, outraged at the way his jousting parents dismiss him, compassionate at the thousand natural shocks his flesh is heir to, impressed at what seems to be his greater maturity in achieving some sort of perspective, and finally concerned as we question, perhaps, his emotional acceptance of his father. Is this unconditional love at its best, or worst?

In Greek tragedy terms, Peter Hambleton’s Ross is the Chorus, commenting on behalf of the community at large. When he too steps out beyond his allotted role, on to the moral high ground, we have the choice of aligning with him, seeing him as a sanctimonious buffoon and/or recognising how closely he resembles conservative America. As ‘Everyman’ amid those who recognise their greater intelligence is their curse as well as their salvation, he’s the one who most immediately asks: what would you do?

The great strength of the play – and this production of it – is that we get to ask that question in response to every character’s actions. This is theatre at its best for me.

In a splendid set by Nicole Cosgrove – full of fascinating character clues (e.g. was it Stevie, Martin or Billy who arranged the books in groups according to spine colour?) – lit splendidly by Phillip Dexter, Catherine Downes has staged a must-see production of a modern classic.

Don’t be put off by the story content. That’s just a device to jolt us out of our complacency and make us take a fresh look at our middle class values and behaviour. It’s satire with sharp horns, every bit as comic as it is tragic.

In a revealing story he tells Billy about a man’s sense of guilt at his involuntary sexual response to dandling a baby, Martin observes that things happen without our meaning them to, and they may therefore have no meaning. Yet he has made his response to Sylvia’s eyes mean everything in his life. That is the play’s central dilemma: a conundrum well worth confronting.

While the semantic antics of Stevie and Martin, clearly brushing off on Billy, may seem rather indulgent at times, they do point to a whole other level of gamesmanship on Albee’s part. According to Wikipedia, the derivation of the word ‘tragedy’ is the Greek tragōidiā, made up of trag(o)-aoidiā = ‘goat song’, tragos = ‘goat’ and aeidein = ‘to sing’.

Goat-like costumes were worn by actors who played the satyrs in the satyr (satire) plays that followed the tragedies in drama festivals. Goats were presented as prizes in song contests and, by custom, sacrificed to the Dionysian celebration … And of course a man who fails to grow old gracefully and tries to act out his sexual fantasies has been characterised throughout theatre history as ‘an old goat’.

Henceforth, however, many an thespian will proudly announce they have acted The Goat.


John Smythe June 15th, 2006

In the Dominion Post of 15 June 2006, Rosemary McLeod's BROADSIDE column was headed 'Why theatre gets my goat'. I have sent this letter to the DomPost: Who is the goat? In bleating about Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, currently on at Downstage, Rosemary McLeod misses the point (June 15). If anything recaptures the ‘cutting edge’ feel that characterised Downstage when she was a waitress there, it is this play and production. Does she really think theatre that “shocks its audience with the forbidden” is a new and cynical ploy? It began with the Ancient Greeks, who invented drama as we know it. Consider Oedipus, who murders his father and marries his mother, and Medea, who murders her children. Shakespeare’s tragedies are riddled with atrocities … Such classics are, in essence, highly moral cautionary tales and Albee’s The Goat is no exception. It rediscovers the classic purpose of theatre by brilliantly using a domestic drama setting to blend the principles of Greek tragedy and comedy. May I remind Ms McLeod that the Dionysian satyr play, in which actors wore goat skins and horns, is the mother of all satire? For me, The Goat satirises the notion that ‘love’ justifies anything. But that is just my take on it. The play, and this truly compelling production of it, invites each of us to empathise with the very different viewpoints of all four characters and come to our own conclusions. This is exactly why it’s a worth seeing. It separates the sheep from the goats. JOHN SMYTHE Brooklyn

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