Backstage: What the stars had to get over to get their 'Goat' on at Rep Stage

TOGETHER AGAIN: Emily Townley and Bruce Nelson have gone from playing a married couple in
TOGETHER AGAIN: Emily Townley and Bruce Nelson have gone from playing a married couple in "Our Town" to playing a married couple in Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" (Stan Barouh)
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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sitting down for an interview, Bruce Nelson and Emily Townley kibitz like an old married couple, and no wonder. The two actor pals just played Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs in "Our Town" at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore, and now they're playing a very different couple, Martin and Stevie in Edward Albee's 2002 play "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" at Rep Stage in Columbia through June 27.

The first play is an accepted American classic. The second is a button-pusher about an upscale Manhattan couple whose comfy life shatters when Martin announces to Stevie, his best friend and his teenage son that he has fallen in love with a goat. The play is an alternately hilarious and tragic exploration of love, passion and human vagaries.

Nelson admits that his acceptance of the role was not easy at first. He was "terrified of this production because of the subject matter. . . . I was convinced that . . . people would . . . hear these things and they'd walk out. And [director Kasi Campbell] kept telling me, uh-uh. They're going to see how broken Martin is, they're going to sympathize with him, and they will be riveted. So trusting that that was the case was kind of my learning curve."

The audience, Nelson hopes, will not come away thinking Martin is "just a one-dimensional goon that has just managed to completely implode his family but . . . [that he] is bewildered by what's happened to him."

Townley jokes that Nelson "needs to be liked by everyone," thus making a character like Martin a struggle. For her, it was another kind of anxiety. Martin's wife, Stevie, is cool and calm in the play's opening scene. After her husband's revelation, she turns to throwing things. Townley worried about seeming laid-back enough at first and not telegraphing "that I am a woman that would smash furniture."

Working with Nelson is a boon, says Townley, because "he calms me down. . . . I can look him smack in the face and say and do these things with him onstage and I feel very safe."

"Playing Stevie," Townley adds, "really opened my eyes about a lot of stuff. . . . I feel pretty fearless after being able to do this."

Campbell says that in rehearsals she had the cast play around wildly with line readings. "I think we took every line and managed to play it both as Ibsen and as Neil Simon," Campbell says. "I was so shocked that Albee would take a moment of such intense human pain and all of a sudden interject a line that will just bring the house down, then right back into the pain again. That, to me, is brilliant writing, but it's so hard to execute."

Stirring up a 'Tempest'

Sir Derek Jacobi returns to Washington on Thursday and Friday to play the troubled magician Prospero in the Folger Consort's "Tempest." The concert will feature music inspired by Shakespeare's "The Tempest" from such composers as Handel, John Banister and Matthew Locke, interspersed with excerpts from the play. Richard Clifford will direct (and also act).

Washington-based actress Holly Twyford will play Prospero's daughter Miranda as well as his servant/sprite Ariel and the jester Trinculo. Twyford is stepping in for Lynn Redgrave, who died in May. The performances will be dedicated to Redgrave's memory.

Thursday's performance at Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill is sold out, but there are tickets available for the Friday concert at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda. (Info:

Jacobi, Redgrave and Clifford took part in the Folger Consort's 2007 "The Fairy Queen," in which they (again directed by Clifford) performed excerpts from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for Henry Purcell's 1691 "semi-opera" based on the play. Speaking by phone from England, where he was working on a film last week, Jacobi predicted that "Tempest" will have a different feel.

"In this particular instance, the music is slightly more baroque than it was before, and I think it complements the words," said the actor. Performers who work with music as singers or dancers are provided with "a wonderful emotional cushion" by the music, Jacobi said. Classical actors, on the other hand, "have to provide their own emotional cushions, particularly in Shakespeare or anything classical, through their voice. And if you are doing a classical play . . . you've got to have a flexible vocal instrument in order to keep the audience awake."

The film Jacobi was working on in England is titled "Anonymous," directed by Roland Emmerich and written by John Orloff. It is a thriller about the ongoing debate over who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare, whether Shakespeare himself or Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, or Sir Francis Bacon, or Christopher Marlowe, or others.

Jacobi is not neutral in this. "I'm on the side of those who do not believe that the man from Stratford-Upon-Avon wrote the plays," he said. "I think the name was a pseudonym, certainly." The movie "puts the authorship question firmly and squarely on the big screen. It's a very risky thing to do, and obviously the orthodox Stratfordians are going to be apoplectic with rage."

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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