The CanStage production of Edward Albee’s The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia? should have been a great success. This is the first Toronto production of the Tony Award-winning play by this great American playwright. It features an experienced cast and director, and employs some usually reliable set, costume and lighting designers.
The play is set amongst the kind of rich New York types who have appeared on Broadway, on TV and in films for as long as any of us can remember. We all know their sort. They are intelligent, self-aware, sophisticated and eloquent Manhattanites. Because of who they are, they (and the audience) are convinced that their interpersonal problems are more important and more instructive than anybody else’s. Meanwhile, under the layers of sophisticated dialogue and shock-value plot machinations Albee is trying to make the audience think seriously about the nature of desire and the endless complications of maintaining relationships. No doubt this has worked well on stage before and will do so again in the future.
But right from the first few minutes, it’s obvious that this one got away.
Unfortunately, it starts with Judith Bowden’s set and costumes. One can’t expect to be transported to a smart Upper West Side apartment (this is only the Berkeley Street Theatre, after all) but Albee’s characters in this production seem to be living in a space bearing no relation to their circumstances or their presumed level of taste. Even more disappointingly, little about the characters’ costumes gives any hint of their elevated place in the world. This is supposed to be about the family and the friend of a world-famous American architect and visionary. However it is impossible to imagine the likes of a Daniel Libeskind or a Frank Gehry dropping in for dinner with the drearily dressed types living in this poky little place.
Then there is the matter of RH Thomson. This actor, Canadian theatrical icon though he may be, seems spectacularly miscast as a rich and powerful New Yorker. Instead of the sophisticated, prize-winning architect of Albee’s imagination, Thomson looks as if he has driven home from a day spent in a Royal Bank branch in Forest Hill. The air of a tired bank manager that Thomson exudes on stage somehow makes his character’s descent into goat fucking merely (and tediously) understandable. For example, one highpoint of The Goat should be a hilarious recounting of a visit to a bestiality support group. Instead, Thomson makes it sound as if he is reading one of those professionally compassionate articles about the latest fashionable illnesses to appear in the Life section of Saturday’s paper.
Thomson’s miscasting is only the most prominent failure of this deeply disappointing evening. For the rest, director Micheline Chevrier must surely bear most of the blame. Her actors have failed to connect with Albee’s admittedly hazardous transitions. They don’t follow Albee’s line from snappy and brittle word-play to episodes of family devastation resulting from interpersonal breakdowns. Rather than representing the characters and the arguments of the play, the body language of this cast seems only to radiate actorly discomfort.