In ancient Greece, theater was more than just a classy evening out. For audience members, theater was a ritual, bordering on religious, experience. Greek tragedy, then, was a performance type meant to bring viewers to the extreme edges of human experience, where they could see an assortment of horrors, feel their impact, and walk away with a sense of catharsis without having to undergo those extremes themselves.
Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” is a play deliberately cast in the mold of Greek tragedy. Its high-status protagonist, Martin, is a world-famous architect brought low by both his own flaws and the hypocrisies of the society around him, and the normal, subdued tones of the opening slowly descend into a frenzied nightmarescape by the play’s end. What’s more, “The Goat” is a provocative theatrical hand grenade thrown by one of America’s fiercest playwrights, who deliberately asks his liberal audience to reconsider their own notions of what they consider taboo and why.
Capital T Theatre’s outstanding new production, playing through Sept. 15 at Hyde Park Theatre, taps into the depth, terror and ultimate humanity that are at the heart of Albee’s text. Over the course of three harrowing scenes, we see Martin and his family (his wife Stevie and son Billy) descend into a hell of Martin’s making, a plunge mirrored pitch-perfectly by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in Patrick Anthony’s lighting, Cheryl Painter’s costumes and director Mark Pickell’s own fastidiously naturalistic set.
As the play opens, the full range of Robert Pierson’s portrayal of Martin isn’t quite evident. He is distracted, forgetful and tonally subdued, all of which is due, we learn through a confession to his best friend Ross (played with boyish jocularity by Tim Blackwood) that he is having an affair. That infidelity, we learn, is not with another woman, but rather with a goat named Sylvia.
Albee treats what may at first glance seem to be comedic or surrealist with deadly seriousness, as we see Stevie and Billy’s reactions to Martin’s revelation. From there, Pierson’s performance opens up, as Martin refuses to see anything wrong with what he has done, as his affair with Sylvia has given him happiness he has rarely known. Underneath this hapless obliviousness, though, is the dark edge to Martin’s character, which Pierson slowly brings out, as a man who seeks the ultimate sympathy and understanding from his family has absolutely no sympathy for Stevie or Billy’s feelings or concerns.
Rebecca Robinson, as Stevie, is given an equally demanding role by the text, forced to exist on the precipice of rage and hysteria, a frenetic tone that she maintains with daunting forcefulness. Her rage provides one of the play’s fearful driving engines, as does Billy’s simmering, hormonal, teenage sexuality that threatens to burst other societal taboos.
“The Goat” is the kind of play that engenders both deep emotion — from unease to disgust to, yes, even sympathy — and deep conversation about the nature of what we, as a society, are willing and unwilling to accept. By the end of Capital T’s marvelous production, Martin’s admission feels among the least disturbing secrets we have learned, and yet each further revelation engages us intellectually even as it reaches to the core of our deeply embedded social assumptions.
Though its dark, frank material may not be for everybody, “The Goat” is a must-see for those looking for a moving, moody, meditative family tragedy of Greek proportions that may forever change the way we view our world and ourselves.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Sept. 15
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.