The goat, or who is Sylvia, Edward Albee, at St. Louis’s agora, Gaslight Theater

When did you last go to a play so powerful that a man in your row had to leave, pushing past everyone, and an elderly woman in a far front row urgently decided to skip the steps and just slip down the seating area edge, falling two steps in the process? He vanished quietly into the bar next door, leaving his partner to keep watching, but she decided to stay put in the dark hall, her loud chatter and the audience’s attempts to hush her becoming another dimension to the already unusual play.

The Gaslight Theater is my favorite St. Louis venue because it is a cozy theater/restaurant combo along with the West End Grill. When you are in the restaurant eating their delicious steak sandwich with a mellow Malbec, glancing at the feed under the basketball game on TV, and discussing your day or your plans with your partner, you can sense the energy coming from the other side where the play is about to begin. Then in the theater you can hear the murmur of happy diners in the crowded restaurant, giving you the feel that this is the place to be on this cold winter night and that theater is part of social life.

Edward Albee‘s The goat, or who is Sylvia is playing until February 3rd, so you have a chance to catch it. You’ll be glad you did. It is a play both powerful and desperate that will nevertheless keep you laughing, a true commentary on existence, absurd as it can be. What’s normal, what isn’t, what do we owe our friends, what do we owe our family, whom or what can we kill, whom or what can we love, and when do we know we’re no longer normal? Yes, it’s about bestiality, though we’re not supposed to say that, instead latching onto the so-called deeper themes. But I’m guessing that this talked about, not shown side of the play is what sends the old ladies careening off the edge and the men to push indignantly out and me to remember stories involving formal dress, wellies, sheep, and nights in jail, or should I say gaol.

Rehearsal photo by Patrick Huber, set designer, lighting designer, and taxidermist for TGoWIS

Rehearsal photo by Patrick Huber, set designer, lighting designer, and taxidermist for TGoWIS

Does the play work? I’d say yes. Perhaps anything less would not have our attention in quite the same way. How else could familiar themes of couples struggling, sons coming out, best friends betraying, or helping, and the banality of success really grip us? Something shocking has to happen so we can see how these characters play off the new event, thereby revealing themselves.

But I’ve always liked Albee, and others in the absurdist movement, and feel proud of his long-time association with the University of Houston‘s excellent creative writing program. It’s a little surprising he’s still alive, I suppose since at 84 years old, his first play, Zoo Story came out 54 years ago. The goat, or who is Sylvia, is only 10 years old.

Well, I should get back to this particular performance. It always bugs me when reviewers mix together reviews of the play and reviews of the acting. Guess what, the actors, directors, set designers, and the rest of the team can’t change the play. They can make it shine, make the intent come through, but don’t criticize them for the plot or the language (in this case full of puns and other word trips). St. Louis Actors’ Studio did a great job with this one. The protagonist was outstanding. There was nothing flippant about his love for Sylvia, leaving us all the more free to laugh. The others were also believable. For me the only weakness was some of the smashing of stuff was unconvincing. I loved the minimalist, modern set of white furniture and wood, just what an architect like the protagonist would have.

So, get on down to the West End Grill for dinner, but be sure you have your theater tickets first and enjoy the play!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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