The small stage is minimally set with a table, some chairs and a coatrack with clothes. Off to the side is an area representing the barn. On this contained landscape this tale is theatrically enacted.
Brandishing a bloody knife and wearing a bloody apron, is how we first meet the visibly pregnant Siobhan. She’s in her late 30’s, addresses the audience directly and tells her story. She’s an only child, her parents are deceased, and she’s taken a job as a housekeeper for the Keane family on their farm. The stern, widowed 75 year-old Breda lives there with her hapless son Jimmy, who’s in his 40’s.
An awkward romance develops between Siobhan and Jimmy that’s witnessed by the nameless cow. A psychological battle of wills arises between that Charolais, a breed of cow, Breda and Siobhan.
As in one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues, Stapleton offers a richly detailed portrait of an ordinary person that revels in the mundane. She also adds the arresting device of having the inner life of the cow depicted in fantasy sequences.
Employing a strong but intelligible Irish accent, Stapleton’s gutsy performance is commanding. Her assured vocal delivery mines every laugh and bit of drama out of the events, as she acts out all of the characters.
With her blonde hair in a ponytail, her animated features, piercing eyes and barreling all over while wearing rubber boots, she actually looks and sounds like she works on a farm. That visual quality is achieved by Miriam Duffy’s authentic, homespun costume design of a checkered housedress, aprons and coats.
While singing in French and speaking in a comical accent, Stapleton assumes the physiognomy of a cow to express the thoughts of the animal. These transformations are aided considerably by the fiery red hues of Tara Doolan’s dramatic lighting design. In addition, Ms. Doolan’s efforts range from straightforward brightness to eerie dimness.
Director and developer Bairbre Ní Chaoimh’s accomplished staging hauntingly conveys the senses of reality and illusion with lightheartedness and tension. The scenes play out with momentum due to Ms. Chaoimh’s controlled pacing.
The blending of ominous and light incidental music and effects such as a marauding cow, are perfectly rendered by Jack Cawley’s sound design.
Charolais premiered in Ireland in 2014, and went on to win prizes at The Dublin Fringe Festival and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The production has toured extensively throughout Europe and its radio version has received awards.
Experiencing Noni Stapleton’s engrossing writing and mesmerizing performance in this New York City premiere justifies all of that acclaim.
Charolais (through September 24, 2017)
Fishamble: The New Play Company
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59E59.org
Running time: 65 minutes without an intermission