There's no point putting it off, so here goes: There's a lot of talk about sex with animals in "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?"
In Edward Albee's Tony-winning play, presented by the Empty Spaces Theatre Co(llaboration), architect Martin has the perfect life with wife Stevie — until he falls in love with a goat, which he names Sylvia.
Or maybe that should be "whom" he names Sylvia. The distinction matters to the characters in the play. Around the drama of the taboo affair, they archly debate grammar with witty wordplay.
You might think it all sounds irritatingly highbrow or shockingly disgusting. And in the wrong hands, the play could be either — or both.
But luckily for Orlando audiences, "The Goat" is in the right hands: Director Julia Allardice Gagne sets just the right tone for her crackerjack cast of veteran actors Marty Stonerock, John DiDonna and Stephen Lima, with newcomer Steven Fox.
In Gagne's eyes, Martin's affair with Sylvia the goat is no allegory — it clearly happened, and that makes her characters' reactions all the more genuine. Yet, there is a theatricality hanging over the production that reassures the audience, "It's just a play. Don't call PETA. No one actually had relations with a goat."
That theatricality is manifested in part when Stevie shatters the vases and other artworks that adorn Tommy Mangieri's striking set, creating a visceral reflection of the way Martin shatters their relationship.
Importantly, the theatrical safety net frees the audience to laugh, and the darkly comic first scene especially is very funny. This cast has the chops to make both the jokes and Albee's underlying points resonate. In one exchange, Martin's friend Ross is preparing to interview him for a TV show. "Just be yourself," Ross counsels. "Really?" Martin queries. "Well, maybe not," Ross replies to the audience's laughter. "Put on your public face."
But that dig at how the image people present to the world doesn't reveal their true nature is important to Albee's play.
As Ross, who has cheated on his wife (albeit with a human), Stephen Lima perfectly conveys Albee's thoughts on hypocrisy and judgment. And Fox nicely captures the adolescent attitude of trying to carry himself like an adult but coming up short. "Where is my mother?" he demands like a frightened child.
But Albee, who also gave us battling spouses George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," is most interested in his husband and wife facing the unthinkable. DiDonna's Martin is resolute in his feelings, but adds just enough bewilderment at them to evoke surprising sympathy. As Martin's wife, Stonerock beautifully transforms from flirty wife to broken victim to avenging angel. "Make me not believe it… please," she heartwrenchingly begs her adulterous husband.
"The Goat" isn't always easy to watch. But it's always compelling.
'The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?'
• What: An Empty Spaces Theatre Co(llaboration) production of the Edward Albee play
• Length: 1:35, no intermission
• Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
• When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Sundays and Monday, April 28; through May 3
• Cost: $20; $15 students and seniors (cash only at the door)
• Call: 407-328-9005
• Online: redchairproject.com (for credit-card orders)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun