The Beauty of the Beast

At ACT, director Warner Shook gets Albee's Goat.

"LET ME TELL you somethingthe most shocking moment in the play has nothing to do with the goat," swears Warner Shook.

This is the kind of emphatic conversation you have to have if you're going to "defend" The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? (beginning previews Friday, July 25, at ACT Theatre, 206-292-7676), Edward Albee's haunting, confrontational 2002 Tony-winner about Martin, a successful 50-year-old architect and happily married family man who informs his wife, teenage son, and best friend that he has fallen irrevocably in love with a quadruped named Sylvia. Yeshe loves a goat. And, yes, we do find out he has sexual relations with it.

But, "This not a play about bestiality," insists Shook, an Albee vet who's directing the piece's West Coast premiere for ACT. "This is a play about what is acceptable behavior and what isn't. I think Edward is taking an extreme example to make the point, 'OK, America, why do you draw the line here and not here?' And he's not advocating one thing or the other. He's forcing the audience to look inside themselves and see how they conduct their lives. I think everybody brings their own version of Sylvia to the playwhatever deep, dark secret or impulse that we all have had at one time in our lives, and I would say, that 99.9 percent of us have not acted on."

The Goat may come with a high pedigree, given Albee's solid reputation as one of our country's greatest living playwrights, but it's still a brave risk for ACT (unlike the current, safe production, Absurd Person Singular; see "Brief Encounters," next page). When Shook was the artistic head of Intiman back in '94, the theater got calls from sputtering subscribers angry with the depiction of marriage in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?yet anyone who's only recently made peace with Woolf's corrosive truths will leave The Goat red-faced and wide-eyed. More than any other Albee work since that masterpiece, the play gives the lie to the American ideal of perfect domestic happinessit trembles with, as Martin's wife, Stevie, says in the play's first scene, "the sense that everything going right is a sure sign that everything's going wrong."

Shook is the ideal man to bring Albee's potentially off-putting imaginings to Seattle. His two greatest local successes as a director were difficult stories on epic canvasses: Robert Schenkkan's 1991 The Kentucky Cycle and Tony Kushner's celebrated AIDS-and-country triumph Angels in America, both at Intiman. Shook has been more devoted to the humanly recognizable within challenging contemporary plays than the controversy. "The themes are so important, and yet it's a very accessible play," he says of The Goat. "And I think in some ways that's what makes people uncomfortable: Here's this totally attractive couple, who you wish you knew, and look what happens to them."

It's all in the Albee game, he says.

"Edward, I think, is very interested when seemingly normal, wonderful people get derailed," he explains, then laughs. "And unlike Virginia Woolf or A Delicate Balance, there's not one drop of alcohol in this play. You know, some people say, 'Oh, well, those people just get boozed up and let everything loose.' Well, that's what lets the demons out in those plays. In this play, the demon comes out with no help. And once the demon is out, the ramifications are gigantic. This play starts almost as some sort of cryptic comedyI hope they'll laughand then winds up being a great tragedy. And it earns its journey."

IT DOES. Martin and Stevie banter through the initial revelation like the dry wits of some sophisticated, pitch-black drawing-room entertainment: When Martin's son, Billy, berates his father, Stevie hushes the boy by quipping, "He's a decent, liberal, right-thinking, talented, famous, gentle man who right now would appear to be fucking a goat." But the script deposits you at a far different place from where it began and sends you away reeling. No longer the absurdist social commentary you'd finally settled in for, the play relentlessly steamrolls into a startling, wounded reflection on the inexpressible confusion that is loving . . . anyone.

"Martin spends the majority of the play trying to explain what happened to him," Shook agrees. "And he can't do it."

Will it be demanding for Seattle's sometimes-clenched playgoers that Martin insists on trying, and that his protestations include soulful, gushing, completely sober descriptions of how he came to know the dark bliss of animal love?

"Yes, I think it is asking a lot of an audience," Shook answers immediately. "And I think that's what Edward doeshe's not interested in writing an easy play. There were moments when I felt uncomfortable [when I first saw it], but there were moments when I was totally taken to a place contemporary plays don't take you. So I think it's thrilling."

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