Charolais cattle are beautiful creatures. Native to the French region of Charolles, near Burgundy, they are very large and naturally horned, with sturdy hooves suited to rocky terrain. Their silky hair, the color of white gold, grows long in the winter. They’re also quite muscular and sturdy, which makes them ideal to put up with the famously temperamental Irish weather. But they too are temperamental, and one should best remember that when in their presence. One might also say the same of Siobhan, the strong-of-will, strong-of-body, flaxen-haired narrator of the play Charolais now running at Charolais 59E59 Theaters.
When we first see Siobhan, she is in a state. Her pregnant belly pushes out a blood-spattered apron; the large chef’s knife in her hand is stuck with bloody bits of hay. She looks like she’s just murdered someone, an idea that is allowed to take root as she launches into a description of Temple Grandin’s “squeeze machine,” which calms cows during the slaughter to make the job safer and easier on workers. But there aren’t a lot of cows bothering Siobhan. Just one Charolais.
Perhaps their similarities are why Siobhan bears such a grudge against the nameless cow – she certainly feels like she’s in competition with the French heifer for the kind of love and respect her farmer boyfriend Jimmy and his prickly mother Breda feel for the lumbering beast. Playwright and actress Noni Stapleton plays them both, Siobhan and her cud-chewing nemesis.
The cow, however, doesn’t think of herself as the farmer’s favorite and pet. To her he’s an oaf, and she’s his prisoner. Her life on the farm is monotonous, lacking in excitement and romance, a trap from which she can’t escape. She envies the birds their ability to take wing and leave the farm behind forever. She sings Edith Piaf in her husky, lowing, bovine way, tossing her hair, swaying her hips, lamenting the loneliness of a solitary intellectual surrounded by incoherent fools. Really, she’s a very saucy and savvy cow. Inhabiting her, Stapleton turns languid and almost seductive. Only ‘almost’ because there are some very cow-like qualities about the performance, including a few well-placed moos and an occasionally lolling tongue. The Charolais is surprisingly well-heeled and emotive. It’s a funny and charming counterpoint to the rest of the story.
As months pass on the farm, with both the Charolais and Siobhan pregnant, the tension mounts between everyone involved. As it does, Siobhan’s musings become alternately wittier and more vulnerable. Stapleton’s writing is full of personality and good humor. It’s wonderful to listen to her brogue as she passes her judgments on Jimmy, Breda, the Charolais, the country life, small towns, and her own choices. She can be captivating when the story turns serious, but it doesn’t stay that way long.
Do you remember that thing in the first paragraph about the Charolais being big and temperamental? That’s an important thing to remember. But so is the fact that Siobhan too is incredibly determined. And she has something to prove – to herself, to Jimmy, and to his waspish widowed mother.
At a little over an hour, there’s a lot of character in Charolais, and a surprising amount of story in a deceptively small package. Noni Stapleton’s script and her performance are both top-notch – the play has won a heaping handful of international awards. Undoubtedly this work is accentuated by the efforts of director Bairbre Ní Chaoimh, herself a prolific and award-winning actor and writer.
Charolais is a production of Fishamble: The New Play Company. It is running at 59E59 Theaters for a limited engagement through Sunday, September 24, 2017.
Photos by Hunter Canning