Basement Arts presents “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?”
Friday at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m.

Martin, a married man, is in love with a goat. Such a situation merits a family crisis. And that’s exactly what happens in Edward Albee’s 2002 play “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?.” With Albee’s ingenuity and a skilled cast, nothing else could create a more alarmingly honest portrayal of family catastrophe. “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?,” the eighth show in Basement Art’s 2009 season, will run through Saturday.

The plot revolves around a married couple, Martin and Stevie, whose disconnected relationship erupts after Stevie learns a secret about Martin: He is having an affair with a goat. The audience, along with the characters, realize together that the affair is no joke. Yet the prospect remains funny even as it becomes obvious it’s a dangerously serious situation.

The playful banter in the beginning of the play between Martin and Stevie quickly transforms after Martin’s secret is exposed. Still, there are brief moments between Stevie’s shouts and Martin’s hopeless explanations and pleas to be understood where Martin’s misinterpretation of words produce comic relief.

The absurd scenes work on two levels, bringing about laughter while revealing the tragic nature of the situation. It is within the implicit bizarreness of Martin’s relationship with the goat that the struggle and potential for self-destruction is revealed.

The play adopts a new definition of tragedy. At its core, it operates on the possibility of using tragedy as a coping mechanism, and a way for the characters to understand conflict. As LSA senior Jim Manganello, the play’s director, writes in the program notes, “Tragedy is not depressing, it is the way out of depression.” But even as the characters are expressive in their anger and confusion, they do not mourn — there is a quick and painful confrontation of the conflict instead a dwelling on emotions. Albee asks us to consider what tragedy means in the context of the modern day family. Relationships are not merely strained; they’re destroyed even at the play’s beginning.

“It’s a descent without descending,” said Manganello.

“I think what (Albee) is saying — or what our production at least focuses on — is ‘if you don’t fall from a high place, maybe a similar motion is a smaller unravel of yourself, a kind of corrosive, wasting away within,’ ” Manganello said. It is with these situations that the characters realize their pre-existing fallen state when tragedy hits.

The ease and poise with which the four cast members deliver Albee’s script are what allows this unraveling of the self to be recognized by the audience. They force audience members to contemplate how society views bestiality, incest, infidelity and homosexuality. Manganello and LSA student Lara VanderHeiden, who plays Stevie, expressed that the cast and crew’s as a whole are engaged in an ongoing discussion about such issues.

“Stevie is a wonderfully compelling character, but for me, that’s because of what she says — how she says things,” VanderHeiden said.

“Her story and her situation have given me much to consider, and it’s to Albee’s credit that, upon opening night, we as a group are still discussing these characters’ choices, power balances and imbalances, insecurities, etc.” she added.

The flexibility of the script is matched by the transformative venue, Walgreen Drama Center’s Studio One. Meaghan Shelly, the artistic director of Basement Arts and a student in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, said the studio contains 112 motorized seats which can be physically adjusted throughout the space. She said that this was a new feature that they didn’t have at their former residence at the Arena Theater on Central Campus.

For this particular performance, the black-box theater design of the venue is accompanied by risers at the sides of the stage, allowing the audience to take in a side perspective of the stage. The setup was converted to this layout so that the audience would be “terrifyingly integrated” into the play, according to Manganello. The stage layout was meant to represent a boxing ring.

“I think our theater, which is always free, could serve as a kind of forum for debate, a civic organ in which every taboo must be confronted,” Manganello said. “The play does not end when the lights black out — it endures as a neural composition in the minds of the audience.”

In this particular performance, loose ends are left as such. Messes are maintained — all the way to the shattered pottery left scattered on the floor as the aftermath of Stevie’s outburst. The tragedy is quietly violent as it is faced by the characters, and it is left to be grappled with by the audience even after the play’s end.

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