Sunday, June 13, 2010

Theatre Droppings: The Goat, or What's the [Title of This Show] ?

In the last couple of weeks, I caught two shows in DC which couldn't be more different, but share one very important quality, one which is now almost mandatory for my complete enjoyment: they were both only 90 minutes long.

There are many of these intermissionless, 90-minute plays and musicals out there these days, and I love the concept. Don't dare call them a one-act, though; any artistic or producing director will tell you, they cannot sell a One Act Production to their audience. So we won't call these plays one acts (though they kind of are).

Anyhoo, it was several weeks ago when I finally made it out to Signature Theatre to see their regional premiere of [title of show], a musical written several years ago by two musical theatre performers who weren't getting anywhere in their careers, so they decided to write their own show. Well, wouldn't you? They enlisted two gal pals, and developed the piece for the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival. The premise of the show is an intriguing one: the show itself is about the authors writing the show. Its publicity called it "a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical."

[title of show] had a long gestational period Off-Broadway, before landing on Broadway in July of 2008, where it lasted a scant three months. But it will have an ongoing life in regional and educational theatre, as its four-member cast, minimal set requirements, and single accompanist make it a relatively inexpensive way to showcase four dynamic talents. The Signature had them in spades, with all four actors polished to a shine. In particular, James Gardiner's quirky performance was a standout. As for the piece itself, the program notes claim that the authors continue to update the show depending on its circumstances. They revised their final moments to reflect their Broadway production, but failed to mention its premature closing.

Ah well, who cares about that? The Signature production was a swell ride for a musical theatre geek, and I applaud any show which mentions Dinah Manoff, Henry, Sweet Henry, and the husband and wife mime team of Shields and Yarnell. Whatever happened to them?

Rep Stage's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? is a terrific production of one of Edward Albee's more recent plays (well, it ran on Broadway in 2002, but Albee is not terribly prolific these days, so I consider it one of his recent works). This play won the Tony for its original production, and had a pretty healthy run of a little less than a year. I've been out to many Rep Stage productions, often because they were directed by my buddy Steve Carpenter. I mentioned seeing his production of Mrs. Farnsworth several years ago, and more recently, I raved about Hysteria. This time out, Steve was acting rather than directing, playing the leading couple's best friend, and providing the catalytic device which ignites a lot of fireworks.

The play, you see, is about (SPOILER ALERT) an intelligent, well-adjusted, happily married man who commits adultery with a goat. You might not think such an outlandish plot could be realistically handled, but under Kasi Campbell's direction, you believe every moment. Bruce Nelson and Emily Townley have spectacular chemistry as the married couple; I just love watching actors at the top of their game.

I am not alone in thinking that The Goat... is meant as a symbolic tale (tail?), but Edward Albee is notoriously hostile when asked to explain his plays, so we'll get no help from him. Several plays he wrote during mid-career were confusing even to the actors performing them. Katherine Hepburn, who appeared in the film version of A Delicate Balance, and John Gielgud, who starred in Tiny Alice, both claimed later that they had no idea what their respective plays were about. Getting back to the play at hand, I have a hunch that Albee saw, when writing this absurd premise, that audiences may think the bestial relationship portrayed would be misconstrued as a stand-in for a gay relationship. Perhaps to circumvent that idea, he made the central couple's teen-aged son gay.

While I was flipping through the show's program, reading dramaturgical notes and whatnot, I stumbled upon a truly hilarious and ironic full-page ad, placed by a petting farm in rural Maryland. I wonder if the advertiser in question has any idea what The Goat...'s final moments portray. The sexual relationship between a man and a goat is uncomfortable enough, but when Townley's wronged wife hauls the slaughtered carcass of the goat onstage, covered in blood and guts, it's a pretty revolting ending. This full-page ad in the program was purchased by Clark's Elioak Farm, and cheerfully chirps:

"Need to visit some goats?
If so, we've got the place for you!"

When I read that, I brayed like Dr. Dillamond...

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