Review: ‘The Goat or, who is Sylvia?’ at Soulpepper Theatre

Joseph Szekeres

Conventional social norms and ‘unspeakable’ desires severely collide in Edward Albee’s ‘The Goat or, who is Sylvia?’ now on stage at Soulpepper’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto Ontario’s historic Distillery District.

Director Alan Dilworth, in his Program Note, describes his experience of working on this production as confessional. This astonishing cast confronts truths which become challenged by opposing truths thereby resulting in the ground being taken out from under one’s feet when we hear the betrayed Stevie (courageously played by Raquel Duffy), telling her husband, Martin (a liberating performance by Soulpepper Artistic Director, Albert Schultz), “You have brought me down, and I’ll bring you down with me.” Clearly, this statement is a warning of the possibility of a tragedy of considerable proportion.

The often-used subtitle of ‘The Goat…’ - Notes toward a definition of tragedy – adds a further dimension of understanding to this explosive production of a fascination of human sexuality and whether social morality can handle it. Be warned as this play is riddled with biting and fierce expletives and, at times, sordid, spiteful and hateful words and innuendo, but we become fascinated at our immersion in the absurdity and ludicrous nature of the plot. We do want to find out how it’s going to end and, spoiler alert here, it does not conclude on a positive note whatsoever.

Thomas Ryder Payne’s bucolic soundscape of an idyllic, pastoral life is most pleasing to the ear. Lorenzo Savoini’s video design of rural architectural drawings on a scrim in front of a well-kept living room of an upscale family connects the two worlds which mean everything to Martin. Kimberly Purtell’s lighting design enhances the myriad of conflicting emotions from one moment to the next.

Mr. Dilworth’s directorial vision is gutsy, and his four actors most assuredly move the plot along confidently. We immediately buy the relationship between Mr. Schultz and Ms. Duffy as a couple who are affectionate, warm and lovingly tease each other, until Martin confesses his ‘affair’ to his friend, Ross (Derek Boyes), who feels it is his place to confess what he knows to Stevie in a letter. Ross loves Martin and Stevie and cannot stay silent in a time of crisis for both of his friends. Mr. Boyes’ reaction when he is shown the picture of the ‘individual’ with whom Martin is having an affair becomes a mixture of absurdity, revulsion, guilt and curiosity. Paolo Santalucia captures sensitively the loneliness, hurt, frustration and anger of Martin and Stevie’s eighteen-year-old gay son, Billy. In a moment of hurt, spite and possible reconciliation, Billy reaches out to his father for comfort which drew immediate gasps from the audience.

If it is called in the script, an actor likes the idea of breaking objects for dramatic effect. ‘The Goat’ calls for Stevie, in her depths of despair and anger, to hurl and break many of the set props, and Ms. Duffy accomplishes this task forthrightly. I do understand completely how the purposeful shattering of props poses risks for actors and for front row audience members. Safety is of utmost importance always but, and this is only a minor point, some of Ms. Duffy’s destruction of objects were just a tad too contrived. Her descent into loathing and repulsion of Martin’s actions are believable and heart rending; nevertheless, the breaking of some of the set pieces slowed down the action for a brief second but Ms. Duffy remained in complete control of Stevie’s fragility each time.

The Soulpepper program states ‘The Goat or, who is Sylvia?’ is as much Stevie’s tragedy as Martin’s. True but, judging from this performance that I saw, all four characters must wrestle with cataclysmic revelations and deal with their own loss. At the end of the performance a lovely senior citizen, Anna, turned to me and hoped there might have been a question and answer period following this

performance. She had many questions herself that she would have liked to have asked the actors and the production team.

This fine Soulpepper production is one which will have audiences asking questions upon questions about human nature, social norms and why people do certain things they do. Once again, Mr. Dilworth writes that it is the job of the actor to go down to the pits of the human emotion. As audience members, we sacrifice actors to the action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy with us and our own lives.

And this, my friends, is one of the many reasons we go to see good live theatre. Try to get to see this one if you can.

‘The Goat or, who is Sylvia?” continues November 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18, 2017 at 7:30 pm and November 11, 15 and 18, 2017 at 1:30 pm at the Baillie Theatre in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s historic Distillery District, 50 Tank House Lane. Tickets may be purchased on line at or at the box office before each performance. You may also call 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Photo of Albert Schultz and Raquel Duffy by Cylla Von Tiedemann.