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Theatre in Review: Charolais (Fishamble: The New Play Company/59E59)

Noni Stapleton. Photo: Hunter Canning

A Charolais cow -- a breed of cattle native to eastern France -- forms the hypotenuse of the romantic triangle at the heart of Noni Stapleton's solo show. I use this geometric term advisedly: Even though the other corners are occupied by Jimmy, a taciturn, mother-ridden Irish farmer, and Siobhan, the lively, chatty, and ever-so-desperate narrator, don't expect any action à la Edward Albee's The Goat. Instead, Stapleton, who also stars, has spun a distinctively Irish yarn, both funny and black-hearted, a tale of woman versus heifer that, I feel certain, is unlikely to earn the PETA seal of approval.

This becomes clear as Stapleton enters, wielding a bloody butcher's knife, her apron stained with red, looking for all the world like Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett, announcing, "The woman who invented the best way of killing animals was a vegetarian. Mad isn't it?" This cues a meditation on Temple Grandin and her invention of an ethical cow-killing machine. Or, as Siobhan puts it in her distinctively slam-bang way, "One at a time in the squeeze machine, get a hug, and BAM. Roast beef." Already, a certain nervousness has set in: Are we witnessing the aftermath of a bovine slaughter?

Siobhan works as a kind of housekeeper and bookkeeper for Jimmy, who raises cattle, and her services extend to some fast action in the barn when Breda, Jimmy's dried prune of a mother, isn't paying attention. It's not a perfect arrangement but, for the moment, it works, and it is vividly described by Siobhan, a big-boned broth of a girl, with a lively, often slashing tongue. "I like country boys," she says. "'Cause they're mucky. And they talk slow. And they don't stand too close t'ya 'cause they're used ta sayin' hello over walls and hedges and from the top of tractors." Breda, she notes, "smells of old furniture," adding, "There's a wasp in her but it's all covered up. Smilin' at ya one minute -- givin' ya a swipe the next." During a fraught encounter, she says, "I'm standing there with the feeling like you get when you think you might jump off the balcony at mass." Whatever Siobhan is up to, she makes very good company.

And, as it happens, she is up to plenty. For one thing, she is pregnant, and so is the Charolais -- and it is not lost on her that Jimmy is far more excited about the latter, in part because he can't bring himself to break the news to Breda. Before long, Siobhan -- who, even after her condition is revealed, ends up sleeping in a separate room from Jimmy -- is making plans of her own: "Have you ever seen a farmer wear a scarf? No, ya have not! Too many things to get caught in. Diggers and generators and hay balers. Guess what I'm givin' Breda for Christmas?"

Siobhan's main rival, however, is the Charolais -- and, as portrayed by Stapleton, she is as sophisticated and world-weary as any New Wave film heroine. In her best Jeanne Moreau manner, she tells a bird, "You have wings and can flee zis place and ze crushing ennui... Mon Dieu, how I long for conversation." Not for nothing does Siobhan note disgustedly that, upon hearing Jimmy's call, the Charolais "turns her huge head and, I swear, kind of cocks her arse round as well like she's posin' on the red carpet."

All of these conflicts are resolved in a suspenseful, unexpected climax that provides a final reckoning between Siobhan and Breda while sealing the Charolais' fate, at least as far as Jimmy is concerned. This earthy, faintly macabre tale -- an oddball rural romance with little echoes of Martin McDonagh and Flannery O'Connor -- is delivered with remarkable skill by Stapleton, who can charm and unsettle one with a single gesture, leaving us uncertain about how far Siobhan will go to land her man. She is also effective as the eternally purse-lipped Breda and as Jimmy (although, given his withdrawn nature, he is more often described than impersonated). With the simple removal of a hairband, she transforms into the Charolais in all her hauteur -- although I fear these passages represent her one misstep: They're the stuff of sketch comedy, a satirical conception that represents a jarring break from the story's naturalistically rendered human barnyard, filled with yearnings, lusts, and resentments.

Even so, I'm betting that Stapleton, who is equally adept as a writer and performer, will leave you spellbound, and thanks be to 59E59 for bringing her to our attention. Bairbre Ní Chaoimh, who developed the script with Stapleton and directed, has surely played an equal role in making sure that we hang on her every word; she also has elicited solid work from Miriam Duffy (costume design), Tara Doolan (lighting), and Jack Cawley (sound). If you like your fictional animals cute and cuddly, you're in for a shock -- but I can guarantee you won't be bored. -- David Barbour

(31 August 2017)

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