THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA? by Edward Albee, directed by Micheline Chevrier, with R. H. Thomson, Gina Wilkinson, John Jarvis and Paul Dunn. Presented by CanStage at the Berkeley Downstairs (26 Berkeley). Opens tonight (Thursday, November 3) and runs to December 10, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $27-$51. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
No butts about it - The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is one of Edward Albee's most intriguing plays. Its title character is the new mid-life romantic partner of Martin, a successful architect who's still deeply in love with his wife, Stevie, but caught up in the thrill of a fresh passion.
Needless to say, it's hard for Stevie, their gay son Billy or Martin's friend Ross to understand where Martin's coming from.
And the play's laugh-out-loud funny. But not in the vein of the 70s Woody Allen film Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, in which Gene Wilder is smitten with a sheep.
"Albee's comedy is a challenge for anyone working on it," offers Gina Wilkinson, who plays Stevie. "You can play it with absolute integrity and truth and not get a single laugh. But that screws it up, even though you're not being untrue to what's on the page."
"It's a horrible, wrenching story that asks you to journey way down to a place of sorrow, loss and potential ugliness. But there's a light top, a sail" - she gestures above her head, her hands flowing - "that keeps it moving along, even during its most hideous exchanges."
Wilkinson's just had the show's first preview, and felt "giant laughs" that caught the audience up, not allowing them to be fearful of or repelled by the material.
"It actually has, for Stevie, a strong element of sitcom," says the passionate Wilkinson, a performer (Closer, This Is Wonderland), director (fish shack) and playwright (My Mother's Feet).
"Though she's in a terrible situation, she's a delight to play because she gets to react to everything Martin tells her. The audience lives with her for most of the play; she carries their response of horror and disbelief, and there's a lot of comedy in that."
She notes that The Goat is a play that "emotionally ambushes" viewers, showing how people are tested in their relationships.
"It's about discovering the limits of your desire to fully understand and know another person, to explore the limits of your compassion. If you're not tested, you can't know how big or small you are.
"And typically, Albee picks well-heeled people of privilege and tips them into a vital mess."
In fact, Martin and Stevie are cousins of George and Martha, the gleefully sadistic couple in Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
"But Albee's a kinder, more generous writer now," Wilkinson adds. Martin and Stevie may be self-centred and capable of exchanging verbal barbs, but we don't doubt that they care for each other.
Even weeks into working with the script, the actor's still impressed with the quality of the writing.
"I can't get over how well taken care of we are as actors. Sometimes you work on a script that you have to muscle so it works; you carry it, rather than having it carry you. The Goat is an engine that, if you observe the words and the punctuation, is an incredible story even if you don't get all the layers.
"If you observe what's on the page, it functions like music." She pauses, not sure if she wants to add something.
"Albee's the only playwright I've worked on whose stage directions I don't cross out before rehearsals. He's absolutely right about what he puts on the page. And even if you do cross out what he's written, you find yourself returning to it when you're creating a performance."