YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre are staging next week’s northern UK premiere of Edward Albee’s emotional, if controversial, rollercoaster of an American play, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?.
New York architect Martin Gray has it all as he turns 50: fame, fortune, a happy marriage to Stevie, and a wonderful, gay teenage son, Billy, but he is hiding a BIG secret. Everything changes when he admits to his best friend, Ross, that he is having an affair with…a goat.
The Goat caused a stir but nevertheless was a hit with audiences when it opened on Broadway in 2002, winning the Tony Award for Best Play 40 years after Albee took home the same prize for Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
Playing at the John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41Monkgate, York, from February 25 to 29, The Goat switches between comedy and full-blown tragedy as Stevie, Billy and Ross struggle to deal with Martin’s revelation.
“The play is about love and loss, the limits of our tolerance and who, indeed, we really are,” explained Virginia-born playwright Albee, who died in September 2016. “All I ask of an audience is that they leave their prejudices in the cloakroom … and later — at home — imagine themselves as being in the predicament the play examines and coming up with useful, if not necessarily comfortable, responses.”
Directed by Mark Hird and produced and designed by Robert Readman, Pick Me Up’s production casts American actor and tutor Bryan Bounds as Martin; Susannah Baines as Stevie; Mick Liversidge as Ross and Will Fealy, a student at CAPA College, the creative and performing arts college in Wakefield, as Billy.
Bryan Bounds, who runs the American School of Acting at Westcliffe Hall, off Cold Bath Road, in Harrogate, suggested The Goat to Mark, having first met him when his son Frankie played Pugsley in Pick Me Up’s production of The Addams Family at the Grand Opera House, York, in October 2015.
“I saw the original Broadway production in 2003 at The Booth Theatre with Sally Field and Bill Irwin leading the cast,” he recalls. “Like a lot of people, I was stunned, and afterwards I sat cogitating with an old chap, and we both said, ‘yes, it’s entirely possible that you could fall in love with goats’, but actually this play is nothing to do with goats.
“Albee’s work is all about using theatre to elevate the consciousness of the audience. He says, ‘never leave the audience the same way you found them’. This play really stays with you and you start to think more about intolerance. But the less the audience know before going, the better for having an impact on them.”
Bryan had been sitting on suggesting The Goat to Pick Me Up, “but then I saw Susannah [Baines] in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and thought she’d be perfect for Stevie because you need a very strong actor for that role,” he says.
“I asked Mark if he would like to direct it, and once he said ‘yes’, he suggested Mick Liversidge to play Ross, and I suggested Will Fealy for Billy. Will lives in Ossett and has been one of my students; he’s very talented and he’s just been offered an unconditional place at ArtsEd in London after he finishes at CAPA College.”
It was not a straightforward decision that Mark would direct The Goat. “When Bryan asked me, initially I sent a holding message saying I’d just agreed to direct Monster Makers, though I’m a reluctant director as acting is my passion,” he recalls.
“But then I read Albee’s play and thought, ‘oh my god, I have to do this’. I could see what Bryan could see in it.”
Playing Martin’s wife Stevie will be a “totally different direction” for Susannah. “I’m usually a bit more jazz hands; I rarely do straight plays; The Pitmen Painters in 2015 was the last one,” she says.
“Then I read the play without reading anything about it, and the impact of its fallout is quite extraordinary and scary for all four of them. You start with this happy, rich successful family who seem to have it all, but one bombshell changes it all.”
Susannah adds: “I wouldn’t have done this play if Mark wasn’t directing it, because he does everything with such care, such detailed research, and then works so collaboratively in the rehearsal room.”
Bryan has enjoyed the rehearsal process with Mark. “The first time we met up, he sat us down and we spent an hour just talking about the characters; who they are; what do they each want? That’s the luxury of how he works. Detail,” he says.
“I just believe we’re there to tell Albee’s story, and with Mark’s huge amount of research, we will tell this huge emotive story, not just do a play. I love the idea that it’s not all set in stone, so it will be different every night because the audience’s responses will change every night.”
Mark says: “The audience don’t need to see the research. It’s the result that counts. At first, audiences would swear they’re watching a situation comedy that’s very funny, but as the play goes on, what they’re watching is a situation tragedy.
“Albee gave the printed edition of the play a subtitle: Notes Towards A Definition Of Tragedy, but there’s not just a flow from comedy to tragedy with the consequences of a tragic flaw leading to a fall from a great height.
“Instead, there’ll be one line that has you in fits of laughter and then suddenly you choke on that laugh because of the line that comes next. It’s so well constructed and that’s what Albee is so good at.”
Mark adds: “When you’re faced with moral ambiguities in a play, as with Greek tragedies, it makes you think about yourself and about society around you, and that’s what makes Albee’s play a modern version of a Greek tragedy.”
Bryan rejoins: “Albee wrote the play because he wanted audiences to conceive the inconceivable. Originally it was going to be about a man falling in love with another man, but then he thought, ‘No, I need to polarise people’s response to it’.
“I have the feeling it will be the most disturbing play people will ever have seen at 41 Monkgate.”
Albee once said, “if you think this play is about bestiality, you’re either an idiot or a Republican”. Mark says: “He also said, it’s no more about bestiality than it’s about flower arranging’ and both are in the play!”
Why should you see The Goat? “It’s a play that will make you laugh, shock you, and maybe even make you cry,” says Susannah. “It’s the most outrageously funny tragedy you could ever see, and above all it will make you think.”
Bryan concludes: “It will make you change how you think about everything, all in 90 minutes.”
Mark has the last word. “It will make you think about your relationships; how you treat your family, as Albee portrays relationships in a way that has a real impact on audiences.
“If you like theatre that’s entertaining and sends you home changed and thinking about some big themes, this is one of those nights for you.”
The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, runs at the John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41Monkgate, York, from February 25 to 29, 7.30pm nightly. Box office: 01904 623568 or at pickmeuptheatre.com. Please note: this play contains adult themes and strong language; suggested minimum age of 15.