Edward Albee pushes boundaries
Berkshire Theatre Group goes for broke with Edward Albee's 'The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia?'
STOCKBRIDGE — Playwright Edward Albee doesn't make things easy — for producers, for actors, for audiences. The estate of the late three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has final say over casting and design elements for all productions of his plays. And the estate insists on a four-week — minimum — rehearsal period.
There's a good reason for that, says Eric Hill, who is directing Berkshire Theatre Group's season-opening production of Albee's "The Goat, or. Who is Sylvia?" The play begins performances Friday (press opening is Saturday evening) at BTG's Unicorn Theatre, where it is scheduled to run through June 15.
"There is a consciousness he wants to transmit to actors that something is being worked on," Hill said during a recent pre-rehearsal interview, at which he was joined by his leading actors, David Adkins and Jennifer Van Dyck, as an upper middle class married couple —— sweethearts since college.
Also in the cast are Josh Aaron McCabe as a family friend, and Evan Silverstein as Billy, the couple's 17-year-old "handsome and worrisome" son, as he is described by his father.
"Albee works on so many levels. Playwrights who do that are the best playwrights," Hill said. "His plays make so many demands of actors. You don't feed Albee to (just) any actors."
"The Goat ... " is not the first time Adkins and Hill have worked together on Albee material. In BTG's 2017 season, Hill directed Adkins in "At Home at the Zoo (Zoo Story)," also at the Unicorn, in which what begins as a typically quiet, calm, uneventful Sunday afternoon for a literary editor and his wife turns into something horrifyingly life- altering.
In "The Goat ... " Adkins plays Martin, a hugely successful just-turned-50 architect who, at the same time, has won the prestigious Pritzker Prize and is about to begin a massively ambitious project. His marriage to Stevie, his college sweetheart, shows all the marks of success. And then, everything begins to unravel — with devastating consequences — when Martin acknowledges to Stevie that he has fallen in love with a goat.
"This kind of material tests the actor in ways that not all playwrights do by any means," Adkins said by e-mail in a brief follow-up interview. "It requires everything you have as an actor, as an artist and as someone who shares the stage with other artists in material that is almost unfathomable."
Van Dyck said it was impossible to say "no" when she was offered the role of Stevie. First, she looked forward to working with Adkins again after having performed with him last season in "The Petrified Forest." She also recalled not being able to move after seeing a performance of the 1996 Broadway revival of Albee's 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Delicate Balance."
"The chance to attempt the work of a master was something to which I had to say 'yes.' There are such incredible revelations," Van Dyck said. "Words that land in one place also land somewhere else."
"The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia?" — the title draws on ancient symbolology and a song from William Shakespeare's "Two Gentlemen of Verona" — opened on Broadway in March 2002 with Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman in the leading roles and closed in December after 309 performances. Ruehl and Pullman were replaced for the last four months of the run by Sally Field and Bill Irwin. The drama was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won a Tony Award as Best Play and a Drama Desk Award for outstanding play.
"The play fits our times," Adkins said during the interview. "I think we all have a goat in our lives. Albee says the play is about love and loss and tolerance."
"It's (also) about fidelity," Van Dyck said. "It's about taking people to the most extreme end when they love."
Hill believes it is no whim that led Albee to the play's subtitle "(Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy"). From the very time of the Greeks, tragedy has been integral to the DNA of theater. Tragedy crested, Hill says, at the time of the Peloponnesian wars and the eventual collapse of the Athenian state under the weight of what Hill calls the "imperialist military trap" that was defined by wealth and arrogance at the top of society. Amid the literal and figurative ruins that surrounded them, the defeated citizenry, Hill maintains, began asking questions — how did this come to be? what do we do now? how do we survive and move on?
Identifying with events on a stage offered a path to transformation, Hill said. "I think theater was offering up an alternative view of how things could go by injecting into the culture an awareness of loss, what the consequences were and how we endure that," Hill wrote in an e-mail.
For Hill, Van Dyck and Adkins those connections have resonance in "The Goat."
Humor has a clear place in "The Goat." It is wicked, clever, sly. "Albee knows you don't get to an audience without laughter," Van Dyck said.
Albee is perhaps at his most adept in using humor to help define the relationship between Stevie and Martin.
"Albee sets up an incredible ease and delight between (them)," Van Dyck said. "He allows an understanding of how they relate to one another."
Language is fundamental in "The Goat," more so, perhaps than in many of Albee's other writing.
"Words matter," Van Dyck said; in the play, in life.
"What role does language play in our lives?" Hill asked rhetorically, summarizing what is, for him, a primary thematic element of "The Goat"; an element that draws this 17-year-old play closer to these times.
"Language carries weight and meaning in ways we don't always understand," Hill said. "When words no longer mean anything, what do you do then?"
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