There may be no better, or more controversial, example of humankind’s uneasy attempts to shape nature than the cow. When celeb geek Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted that cows are “biological machine(s) invented by humans to turn grass into steak,” avowed vegan Moby took to Instagram to call him an “ignorant sociopath” for making light of the “unspeakable suffering” humans wreak on billions of animals a year. Irish company Fishamble’s genial Charolais at 59E59 Theaters mines this same tension for dark humor and pathos, but with a much more intimate beef, between an Irish woman and a French heifer over the man who loves them both.
Siobhan is a late-30s, working-class midlands Irish woman who has come to do clerical work on a farm as part of a government employment program. The farm is owned by a man named Jimmy and his over-protective, “gammy-eyed” mother, Breda. Jimmy and Siobhan enjoy regular trysts in the turf shed, away from Breda’s prying eye, until Siobhan becomes pregnant. Breda is none too happy about the arrangement once Siobhan finally confesses.
The real problem, however, is Jimmy’s prize cow, named Charolais after her breed, for which he has developed an unhealthy affection after saving her from a ditch with his bare hands. Charolais cows are big, blond, flighty, and aggressive, so there’s not much Siobhan can do about Jimmy’s wandering attention, but that doesn’t keep her from plotting ways to off her rival. A very pregnant Siobhan emerges with a bloody knife and apron as the play opens; the story returns to the beginning to explain just how she got to that point.
Siobhan and Charolais are the only characters we see. Both are portrayed with a world-weary twinkle by Noni Stapleton, who also wrote the play. Siobhan is a pragmatic narrator, at once coolly detached and mildly nonplussed. Costume designer Miriam Duffy has wisely dressed her in a white and red houndstooth frock and green galoshes, implying both an earthy maternalism and a half-serious murderous streak. Directed with a sure hand by Barbre Ní Chaoimh that favors simplicity over showboating, Stapleton is a master of the bemused eye roll, winning sympathy with a frankness that recalls Richard III’s ability to turn spectators into accomplices.
The play kicks into comic high gear, however, when Stapleton lets her own blond hair down and becomes Charolais with tiny adjustments in voice and posture. She rubs her haunches lazily against a table and chews cud, bemoaning her lot in life in zee heaviest of French accents, accompanied by a lone, plaintive accordion. It’s not easy being a purebred specimen with a pedigree extending back centuries, surrounded by mongrels. In addition, Charolais is all too aware of her eventual fate at Jimmy’s hands; the affection is not mutual. It’s only the thought of “bulling,” mating with some virile young bull, that gets her through the days. Even idyllic non-factory farms are subject to the needs of the market, though, so her impregnation is rather less enjoyable than Siobhan’s. “What good is love? L’amour!” she wails after being inseminated via syringe. “It is all tears and suffering, non? I would die of a broken heart but for zee second heart zat beats inside me now.”
Siobhan and Charolais are two sides of the same heartbroken coin, but the funny, ultimately moving play has much more on its mind than drawing easy parallels between the two. If anything, Charolais rests too firmly in Siobhan’s corner. She is a charming, blunt, and complex character, while Charolais herself ends up a bit of a cipher. Sure, she’s destined for the plate, but it doesn’t take a Moby to realize there’s more going on underneath her leathery exterior than her mopey countenance lets on. It’s strong proof of the play’s allure that it leaves one wishing the cow might have been a bit more human.
Charolais plays through Sept. 24 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Madison and Park). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and at 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 279-4200 or visit 59e59.org.