Something grisly has transpired. That much we can deduce. The blood is one clue, the red of it soaked and spattered all over the pregnant woman’s apron as she walks into the kitchen. There’s a hefty carving knife in her hand, matted with blood and — is that hair on the blade? Maybe fur?
Being wary of Siobhan, the Irish madonna who makes this gory entrance at the top of Noni Stapleton’s darkly comic solo show “Charolais,” does seem justified. She’s friendly enough right off the bat, chattering away as she scrubs the blood from the knife and her skin, but the topic is gruesome.
“The woman who invented the best way of killing animals was a vegetarian,” she says. “Mad, isn’t it?”
Siobhan’s pretty mad herself, actually. An undereducated townie who’s new to country life, she’s determined to make a place for herself there — not because she loves her work on the farm, which she doesn’t, but because she is smitten with Jimmy, the taciturn farmer who is the father of the child she’s carrying.
Directed and developed by Bairbre Ni Chaoimh for the Dublin-based Fishamble: The New Play Company, “Charolais” is the story of Siobhan’s desire to eliminate her female competition for Jimmy’s attention: his septuagenarian mother, Breda, who so intimidates him that it’s forever before he tells her that she’s going to be a grandmother; and a beautiful golden Charolais cow he treats with greater tenderness than he does Siobhan.
Sounds like a catch, doesn’t he? Siobhan thinks he is, anyway, and this is what starts her scheming. “Hush, little baby, don’t be afraid,” she sings to her belly, “Mammy’s goin’ to murder the Charolais.”
The cow, the only other character who gets whole scenes of the play to herself, does seem to be Siobhan’s principal rival. Yet there comes a point during the 65-minute performance when you may wonder just whose blood was on that carving knife. Did she really kill Breda, or did she off the cow?
The brilliantly twisted thing about “Charolais” is that what Siobhan wants, ultimately, is a snug little nuclear family, and what could be more proper than that? The trouble with pitting Siobhan against the nameless Charolais, at least in Ms. Stapleton’s performance, is that the cow is by far the more charming of the two: a cartoon fantasy of French allure, a haughty chanteuse trapped in a barnyard life. Like Siobhan, she is a sexual creature, full of lustful yearning, but she dreams of handsome bulls, not of Jimmy — or as she disdainfully calls him, “ze oaf.”
Audience members at 59E59 Theaters get a glossary of Irish terms tucked into their program, but there still seemed to be a gulf of language, or maybe accent comprehension (Irish, not French), between Ms. Stapleton and her spectators on Tuesday night. As a storyteller, she was having difficulty taking her listeners along.
Still, we feel glimmers of sympathy for Siobhan, an antiheroine too petty to inspire outright affection. When the play’s too-tidy ending gives her what she thinks she wants, we suspect the triumph is fleeting. How much peace has she really won, and for how long?
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