He is a 50-year-old world-famous American architect; she is Sylvia, his first lover as a married man. But who is Sylvia and what is unspeakable about his passion for her? Is she a much younger woman? Perhaps foreign, or colored? Or even a man?

No, Sylvia is a goat!

Thanks to the broad horizons of the Tokyo-based Seinendan theater company, and its New York-based collaborator, dramatist Barry Hall, Japan now becomes only the third country (after the United States and Britain) to stage “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?,” a cutting-edge examination of tolerance by Edward Albee, the ever-radical U.S. playwright who garnered a Tony for this work after it opened in New York in 2002.

According to Hall, whose “Eclipse” had its world premiere in Tokyo (directed by Seinendan associate Motohiro Hase) in 2002, and whose “Whither Batavia” last year also had its world premiere in Tokyo as a Seinendan production, the current staging was born 18 months ago. Hall suggested to Seinendan founder Oriza Hirata that the company should tackle this new Albee play instead of one of his older, better-known works such as “Zoo Story” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

In an interview with The Japan Times last week, Hall, who directs “The Goat” in Japanese with an entirely Japanese cast, explained what drew him to the work. “With really good writers or artists like Albee or [Samuel] Beckett,” he said, “you can see their work has a lot of clear themes and preoccupations that they remain consistently interested in throughout their career, but which they are able to keep exploring in very different ways in each play.”

This time, Albee tells the tale of Martin (Kotaro Shiga), one of life’s winners, who we first see chatting with his wife, Stevie (Yuriko Osaki), in their Midwest home. From the tidy, tasteful interior, we at once sense the couple’s high social standing; Stevie, too, seems a happy and contented “ideal wife.”

However, Martin seems distracted as they talk, so we sense clouds gathering on the horizon — clouds Stevie is blissfully unaware of. But when their old friend Ross (Hiroshi Otsuka) visits to interview Martin for his TV program “People Who Matter,” Martin confides to him that he is having a midlife crisis, and is having his first affair — with “Sylvia,” who lives in the countryside.

As they talk more, Martin explains that he can’t understand himself — he still loves his wife, but he’s never had such feelings before. Then, as the play takes a sudden turn, he shows Ross a picture of Sylvia.

Ross is shocked by Martin’s revelation, and after he returns home he writes to Stevie and tells all. She, of course, panics, and in her hysterical confusion the couple’s gay teenage son, Billy (Yuta Ishikawa), hears what is going on: that the husband and father they both love is in love with a goat.

Plates get smashed and the happy home is nearly trashed by Stevie before she leaves. Martin and Billy argue fiercely over which of them is “not normal” before arriving at an epiphany. Then Stevie returns — with a large, bloodstained bag.

As Hall put it: “By accident, the play is very topical in America now, as shortly after Albee wrote it we had members of the Bush administration calling for things like bans on gay marriage, and comparing gay life to sex with animals. So I think the whole idea of sexual transgression is very much a subject of debate in America right now.

“On the other hand, I am doing this play in Japan, because this is a pretty universal play, a play about people in an extreme situation, and I think that as we take people to the more extreme limits, the more superficial national and cultural aspects tend to fall away. Then you get more down to real basic humanity.”

Relying as it does on only four actors, the success on stage of “The Goat” hinges on their performances. Here, Shiga handles his difficult role as an ordinary, serious and loyal family man in a way that allows the audience to understand his situation as one that could happen to anyone, while Osaki excels as the wronged, enraged but ultimately forgiving partner.

Commenting on Osaki’s performance, Hall said: “It surprised me how clearly she understood her character — the complex motivations of a woman who has not only discovered her husband’s affair, but that it is with a goat.

“This is not an absurdist play; this is a complicated, realistic play, so how would this woman actually feel or what would she specifically be angry about? I think it is very easy for actresses just to play anger or shock, but [more difficult] to find specific reasons for this anger — she was very quick to do that.”

And indeed, Osaki was outstanding in the way she portrayed both sides of Stevie — her intelligent, sensible self, and also her visceral jealousy. As Hall said, borrowing the words of Nietzsche, “Whatever is done out of love always occurs beyond good and evil.”

He also quoted Socrates to describe the drama’s complex modulations of tone, saying, “A master of tragedy has to be also a master of comedy.”

Elevated though these references are, they’re not out of place; this is a profoundly intriguing work. Its flirtation with the theme of bestiality may sound sensational or absurd, but by the time the curtain comes down it’s clear “The Goat” cuts right to the heart of personal and public concerns, asking us how much we can tolerate when reality so far exceeds our expectations.

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