Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Pictured: Elana Elyce and Tom Jansson. Photo by Emily Schwartz.
By Conor McShane
By the time of his death in 2016, Edward Albee’s importance in the American theatrical canon had been more than assured. From the poison family dynamic of A DELICATE BALANCE to the sparring intellectuals of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, Albee was one of our foremost chroniclers of upper-middle-class neuroses, writing some of the most challenging and acclaimed plays of the 20th century. But it was one of his later works, 2002’s THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA?, currently presented by Interrobang Theatre Project, that took his pet themes to their most logical extreme. Subtitled “Notes on the Definition of Tragedy,” it’s a playful and transgressive riff on one of theater’s most enduring subjects.
THE GOAT concerns Martin (Tom Jansson), a prominent architect who seems to be at his peak: he’s just become the youngest person to receive the Pritzker Prize (architecture’s highest honor), and has been selected to design a new “city of the future” to be built somewhere in the midwest. Beyond his career successes, he lives in a swanky Modernist home (the terrific set design courtesy of Kerry Lee Chipman), and he’s also lucky to have a loving marriage to Stevie (Elana Elyce), his partner of 20-plus years, and a pretty good relationship with his 17-year-old son Billy (Ryan Liddell), who’s discovering his budding sexual orientation. Despite all this success, something is missing from Martin’s life, a loneliness he can’t quite quantify, that takes the form of an affair. It seems like boilerplate mid-life crisis stuff, until we learn that Martin’s affair is with something non-human — specifically, a goat he calls Sylvia. Once Martin drops this bomb on his longtime best friend Ross (Armando Reyes), his happy home life quickly falls apart.
To say that THE GOAT is a play about bestiality isn’t really accurate; rather, it uses this taboo — probably one of the most extreme in our society — to examine human nature and the relationship between love and desire. The play poses some big questions: can desire be separate from emotional connection? What does it mean to “have it all” and still be missing something? What even constitutes a taboo anyway? One thing he does seem to suggest is that some of us are so desperate for genuine connection, for understanding, that we’re willing to latch onto the first being (human or otherwise) that offers it to us, allowing our loneliness to supersede our moral compass. But, as in Martin’s case, even having that genuine connection (as by all accounts his marriage to Stevie is based in real love) sometimes isn’t enough. Is Albee saying that human relationships are inherently unable to fulfill our longings? As with most questions the play poses, Albee prefers not to give us any answers, but rather lets us decide for ourselves, determining where our own boundaries lie.
Even beyond its transgressive subject matter, THE GOAT is a difficult play for a number of reasons. Albee’s language is at times verbose and attuned to speech’s naturally circular rhythms, with conversations going in torturously long spirals on the way to getting to the point. A great deal of his characters’ (particularly Martin’s) motivations are largely left unstated, and the explanation that we do get is cursory at best. The whole play has a strange, uncanny feeling, as if nobody’s speaking or behaving quite the way we’d expect. It’s hard to say for sure if that’s intentional, but since Albee was one of the great playwrights of his generation, it’s probably safe to assume it is.
Thankfully, for the most part, the cast handles these aspects with ease. Elyce in particular has a firm grasp on Stevie’s pain and untapped wells of rage that bubble to the surface as Martin recounts his tale, and Jansson makes him both pitiable and deeply frustrating. Liddell nails Billy’s emotional angst and alienation, and has some of the play’s funniest lines. Reyes gets less to do, but does solid work with Ross’ machismo and wonky moral sense (he’s totally fine thinking that Martin might be cheating on his wife with a human, mind you). Director James Yost seems to split the difference between the play’s arch uncanniness and a more naturalistic approach, and while it may have been stronger to pick one or the other, some of the script’s more gutting moments still manage to land. Ultimately, THE GOAT is a strong enough play that, in the hands of a capable company like Interrobang, its power is undeniable.
THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA? runs through October 6th. For more information visit interrobangtheatre.org.