The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? – Flat Earth Theatre, Watertown, Massachusetts
I paid another visit to Flat Earth in Watertown this past weekend. I’ve taken a keen interest in how this company has developed over the past few years, having attended their very first show in 2006 and been college friends with several core company members. This production continued Flat Earth’s admirable trend of engagement with what could be seen as challenging performance material. I was intrigued to note my own reaction to it, where I didn’t feel uniformly positive nor overwhelmingly negative. I do commend the company for continuing to engage a discussion and debate through their theatrical productions. They also seemed to have carved out a local niche in Watertown itself, now performing with regularity in the black box of the Arsenal Center for the Arts. I did one show with their larger neighbor, the New Repertory Theatre, in 2007, and have watched that company evolve under a new artistic directorship and some changes to their production aesthetics.
Flat Earth’s “Goat” is a highly stylized production. The set designer clearly went to town on an artistically bourgeois set design, with long white walled shelves and a stark white floor standing out against the black box space. Part of the plot necessitates the destroying of multiple props during every performance. I’m not sure I would want to see what their props budget is per show, but was impressed that they have a willingness to break and repair, or buy multiple items of the same prop.
I wondered about pacing choices in the play. The first scene seemed deceptively slow paced, and meant that the story took a while to get going for me. Some actors’ dialogue delivery had a considerable amount of Pinter-esque pauses, while others delivered their lines in a more conversational style. The mix of acting styles led to my wondering about the conviction and engagement of the characters. Not all seemed to be completely believable nor rooted in the world of the play.
It could be argued that the plot demands a certain distancing or conviction on the actors’ efforts. A seemingly successful businessman develops an unusual and controversial relationship with the Sylvia of the title – indeed, the title could spell out the whole plot of the show. He decides to share his predicament with a close personal friend, but then finds out that the friend cares more about the man’s own family and is equally concerned for him.
The play certainly engages with the provocative angles of theatre, which I tend to appreciate greater than what might just be a crowd pleasing performance. I wanted to see more of the domestic relationship at the root of the play, between the husband and his wife, in order to set up the surprise of the plot mechanics and leave a heightened impact by the final curtain. I may be repeating myself, but I certainly and wholeheartedly applaud Flat Earth for choosing a challenging piece that doesn’t spell out the answers for the audience and isn’t guaranteed to have an audience member walking out smiling.