Roslyn Packer Theatre, March 4


Nathan Page and Claudia Karvan. Photos: Prudence Upton.

They do have cute eyes, goats. Whether they are exactly come-hither eyes, Edward Albee submits, is for the beholder to decide. If the beholder is Martin, 50, happily married and an extremely successful architect, apparently they are. Or, more specifically, those of one particular goat: Sylvia. We don’t get to judge Sylvia’s allure for ourselves, because when we do meet her, she’s having something of a bad-hair day. That happens in tragedies.

You could die laughing at this play, and yet Albee subtitled it Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy, and it is a tragedy from its nose to its tale. Martin and Stevie might not be kings and queens, but they have attained the pinnacle of the bourgeoise ideal of happiness in their sexually vibrant marriage, their shared sharp intelligence and sharper wit, his career (hers is being mother and wife), their wealth, beautiful home (realised in Jeremy Allen’s stylish set) and their beloved gay teenaged son, Billy. From these heights they fall. Their happiness is destroyed and a death results, yet we dissolve in laughter as it happens.

Nathan Page and Mark Saturno. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Although Albee is best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Goat, from fully 40 years later, may be his greatest work, turning morality on its head, and making us giggle at the suffering of Stevie, the play’s most lovable character.

In Mitchell Butel’s production (for STC and STCSA), Claudia Karvan maximises Stevie’s appeal. At first it seems that she and Nathan Page (as Martin) may overplay dialogue that is so unforced, flowing and juicy as to be a gift to any actor. But we soon adjust to the delivery being very slightly heightened, so the comedy is broadened. By scene two, when Stevie has learned from Martin’s blabbermouth friend Ross (Mark Saturno) that her husband is having an affair with a goat, Karvan’s performance is an unstoppable force, climbing through tiers of emotion from disbelief to withering sarcasm to desolation when she looks back on the fact she didn’t “fall in love” with Martin, she “rose into love” with him. That’s before she physically wrecks their home, just as Martin has wrecked their marriage.

Nathan Page, Claudia Karvan and Yazeed Daher. Photos: Prudence Upton.

This scene has Albee’s genius in full flight, as their world shatters, yet we crack up as Martin tells Stevie of going to a bestiality version of AA. If only there were a darker colour than black to describe this humour, with its improbable ability to flick to desperation, sadness and back again. I don’t recall encountering individual members of an audience laughing in such different places.

Page offers a less melancholy version of Martin than William Zappa did in Belvoir St Theatre’s memorable 2006 production, and yet, despite my early misgivings that the character might be played too robustly, Page found a core of Martin that was like a child bewildered at how he had done wrong. Newcomer Yazeed Daher is brilliant as Billy (the name another Albee witticism in a play about a goat). Daher makes Billy as smart as his parents, while weighed by teenaged angst, petulance and anger, and leavened by a deep caring. Saturno’s Ross is splendidly insufferable as a one-man Greek chorus who sits in moral judgement, when Albee seems to be suggesting that none of us should presume to cast the first stone.

Nathan Page and Claudia Karvan. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Is this the funniest play ever written? Okay, there are a few contenders for that accolade, but it wins “funniest tragedy” hooves down. You will forever look at goats’ cheese slightly differently.

Until April 1.