Among other notable experiences I’ve had during the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, I can now say I’ve been admonished by a cow. Please don’t think I’m being derogatory. Because in Venus Theatre’s second entry into the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, Raw, by Baltimore-based playwright Amy Bernstein, the central character is indeed a fired-up bovine committed to the mass uprising of cattle against their “two-legged, one-stomach’d” masters.
Directed with characteristically compelling staging by director and Venus Theatre Artistic Director Deborah Randall, Raw is charming and occasionally intriguing. And although it doesn’t quite scale the theatrical heights reached by other Venus shows this season, it remains a unique and worthy production.
Played with ferocious intensity by Katie Jeffries, Caroline the Cow (whose real name, she states indignantly, is Wilimina) begins and ends the play with direct eye contact exhortations to we the audience (who, it seems, are fellow cows for the purpose of the show) for fundraising dollars for her tell-all documentary about humans that will expose them for the venal creatures they are. The play itself is framed as Caroline’s documentary footage, which, in a hilarious bit of magical realism, the human characters all readily accept (“Make sure you edit this out, Caroline!”). It isn’t clear how genuine Caroline’s passion for cattle rights is versus the passion she shows for raising money. But compared to the myopic self interest of most of the human characters, Caroline looks like a bovine Mother Theresa by comparison.
In fact, all the characters in Raw are exceedingly sure of themselves. Eliza (Allison Turkel) is the matriarch of Red Robin Farm which, although it has long since sank into insolvency, still gives her an almost religious sense of purpose. Her young daughter Jamie, played with spunky optimism by Becca Korn, is just as committed to saving the family farm, though armed with her youth and iPad she advocates for outside-the-box solutions such as buying Serbian donkeys to produce $700-per-pound gourmet cheese.
Aunt Harriet, meanwhile, is just as steadfast in her opposition to all things lactose. Striding around in high heels, Harriet (truthfully played by Jennifer Barry) mocks her family’s obsession with the raw milk produced on Red Robin Farm. Even Chuck (played well by Patrick Gorirossi) the family friend who also serves as an inspector for the local Department of Agriculture, stands up for his own belief that obeying to forced pasteurization is not only right legally but also morally. Indeed, each character is so stubborn in his or her beliefs that it takes a tragedy to change any of them at all. And it leaves us wondering who the cattle really are in this scenario.
Raw is ultimately a play about oppression – of cattle, of raw milk drinkers, of small farmers, of women and children – but it is difficult to discern a concrete point of view, or even clarify what questions Bernstein or Randall may be raising. It is charming and well-acted, and honestly is worth seeing for Katie Jeffries’ revolutionary Cow performance (she also sports an awesome cow mask crafted by Tara Cariaso). But it is not the strongest show in Venus’ “Feral 15” season. The story is too small, and the themes it alludes to are too oblique to be accessed during the course of the 75 minutes.
That being said, Raw does give us one of my favorite Venus sets of the season. Designed by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, the tiny Venus space is once again rendered large by a full scale farm kitchen – complete with water pump and, incredibly, a functioning 1950s style refrigerator that makes real sounds as it cools the ever-important milk. Caroline the Cow sits off stage in a Queen of the Faeries style wicker chair, and she bangs her two “fore-legs” – actually two hoofed staffs that the actor holds – on the floor to start and stop the documentary action (another feature whose meaning eluded me even as the move itself itself charmed me).
The lighting design by Amy Rhodes and the sound design by Neil McFadden are both solid, and the props and costumes by Deborah Randall are original and well-chosen. Indeed, all of the external elements of Raw are thoroughly decent. And perhaps this is the final problem of the production: that it doesn’t really rock the boat in any way, which, although perfectly acceptable, is not what I have come to expect from Venus Theatre. But then again, there is no use crying over spilt milk, for Raw remains a memorable and udder-ly charming production.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Raw plays through November 15, 2015 at V – 21 C Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the Box Office at (202) 236-4078 or buy tickets