nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
August 13, 2011
This year Dixon Place is host to a very deep, cerebral and complicated show with Less Than Rent Theatre's production of Cow Play by Matthew George. The blurb about this show says it is "about love, loss and cows." I would argue that it is more about cyclical time and the futility of being a human caught up in its spokes.
The play follows Mark and Jed, two brothers who grew up together on a dairy farm. Mark, played with frantic conviction by Alex Kramer, decides he needs to get out and go to college without the support of his family. There he meets Julie an aspiring actress (played with smooth lightness by Willa Fitzgerald). She comes from a well-to-do family in Connecticut who are more than happy to fund Mark's continuing education in graduate school. Meanwhile, Jed (performed with deep simplicity by Will Turner) has remained on the farm doing his best to keep going what his family has built even after his father has passed away and the economy is crumbling. When Mark and Julie go to the farm to get away from the city for the summer, much is revealed. Julie reaches Jed in a way he hasn't been reached since his little sister died in a farming accident years ago, and Mark and Julie discover some flaws in their relationship.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? A family drama about brothers making opposite decisions and causing friction. This show is anything but. Director Charlie Polinger has used a multitude of theatrical elements and styles to tell this story. Sometimes the actors come out of character and directly address the audience. Sometimes abstract elements mix with realistic ones. There is a visceral use of sound by designer Justin Schmitz that take us into the machinery of a working farm and projections by Adam Payne are used to show us claymation cows, letters from bill collectors or to/from deceased livestock. There is also a long white scroll that frequently is rolled out and walked upon by the actors, sometimes with painted feet.
All of these elements are meant to lead us to a variety of conclusions. There are elements of complications versus simplicity, past versus future, the vicious cycle of money versus morality, the quest for a purpose and the idea that people can get frozen in time and simply keep repeating the same life patterns over and over again.
The element that spoke loudest to me was the realization that as I grow older and people move in and out of my life, usually new roles aren't created. Instead people fill a position that has been left vacant by someone else. The melding of Julie and their lost sister Grace is a brilliant depiction of that very thing. Fitzgerald handles the changing of character with apparent ease. Every person who comes into our lives came from some moment that allowed them in. Each moment is born from the moment before.
This show is not one that allows the audience to ever check out if they want to stay on course with the plot. The 2-hour run time fills in every moment. The team of mostly Yale students or alumni are asking a lot of their audience. We must work to stay involved. This is not to say it isn't an enjoyable show. This is an artful piece that is half realistic drama and half performance art. It raises questions of philosophy, art, life and time. I found it absolutely worth a trip at FringeNYC this year.