If the idea of seeing “Cow Play” conjures up memories of frightening middle-school renditions of “Oklahoma,” rest assured this bovine fancy written by Matthew George ’11 is far from your typical farm fable. Serious and oftentimes moving, the play combines a conventional love story with nontraditional pacing and jarring interjections that create a bizarre but profound work.
Anchored by a simple dining table and kitchen on one side of the stage, “Cow Play” moves from a dairy farm in upstate New York, to college, to graduate school and back. Mark (Alex Kramer ’13) leaves behind his brother Jed (Will Turner ’11) to go to school, where he meets aspiring actress Julie Morgan (Willa Fitzgerald ’13). Through college, Julie seems the more mature one of the pair, comforting and clear-minded through his father’s death and bouts of self-disillusionment.
She also is more goal-oriented, knowing she wants to pursue an MFA in acting in New York, while Mark only applies to graduate school at her request. The growing discontent Julie feels is inevitable as she flubs audition after audition, while Mark becomes increasingly thrilled with his studies at Columbia University. Yet Mark appears oblivious to her feelings, absorbed in his own lengthy stories about medieval history.
When the two visit Jed for a summer, the true extent of the distance between Mark and Julie becomes apparent. While, after a hesitant start, Julie throws herself into farm work, Mark is increasingly absent, consumed by his dissertation on the Bayeux Tapestry. When he goes to France to see the tapestry in person, Julie and Jed improve their initially rocky relationship, communicating honestly in a way that Mark and Julie haven’t done in years. Julie finds a sense of fulfillment on the farm with her favored cow Antigone that her auditions hadn’t delivered for quite some time.
When Mark returns from France, Mark and Julie’s relationship is one dimensional in comparison to the one Julie and Jed had developed. Mark’s love for Julie is based on past memories he refuses to let go of; as the audience witnesses Julie’s evolution, this love is clearly unsustainable.
If the overarching details of the plot seem predictable, the acting makes “Cow Play” worthwhile. Fitzgerald plays the part of wealthy Greenwich native Julie with grace. When the story takes a disturbing and unexpected turn, she is eerily convincing. Turner conveys taciturn Jed and his vulnerability best through silent, purposeful presence. Kramer plays Mark with just the right amount of good intention and childish self-absorption that it’s impossible not to understand why Julie loves and stays with him for so long. Great credit for their success, of course, goes to the simply superb dialogue. What might have been a dry and trite story in other hands is dynamic and engaging in writer George’s.
“Let the moments pool together like marbles,” Julie says early on. “There is no now – time just exists.” It is this philosophy that drives the uneven pacing of the story and gives it its power. Julie and Mark meet each other, talk and begin to date in no more than a rushed minute at the beginning, while the summer at the farm languidly stretches on for the majority of the play. A perfectly normal moment is punctuated by a disturbing shift in time – of years or centuries – and identity. Instead of detracting from the play, these shifts, as Mark points out, make the story more than isolated moments, photographed and posted on Facebook, but a true whole.
The projections also go far in making this work novel. Although initially a Claymation cow might be distracting, its appearance throughout the play along with other nonsensical things (the cow Antigone writes Julie letters from heaven, for example) complements the peculiar outlook of the show. These little amusements not only serve as comic relief but also add to the sad humor and poignancy of “Cow Play.”
Ultimately, the play centers around themes of disappearance – the disappearance of discrete time and identity – and fate. As Mark finds out about the incomplete end of the Bayeux Tapestry, the details of how the play concludes are not really important – rather, it is what we draw from the whole. “Cow Play,” though not without its flaws, verges at times on brilliance. A love story on a dairy farm, complete with cows of all kinds (Claymation and cardboard) does not seem like it would pose deep philosophical questions, but this one will leave you thinking for hours — or days.