The Goatwoman of Corvis County by Christine Whitley. Directed by Robert Walsh.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"When all else fails, be attractive."
Thomas Kee and Keira Naughton; photo: Kevin Sprague
Charlotte Clark, the goatwoman of Corvis County - in the play of that name at the new Elayne P. Bernstein Theater at Shakespeare and Company - lives for philosophy. At least, if you asked her, she would tell you that certain qualities in life are the ones worth pursuing and if they are selfish qualities and if they are satisfying, then you are living up to your potential and that is philosophy. The woman can talk. She can talk and charm and scatter thoughts to the four winds and fully anticipate those thoughts returning to her refreshed and refined. She is an Aristophanes woman, a Lysistrata fighting a losing battle to control her husband, or husbands since she has had five of them by the time this play begins. Call her manipulative. She wonít care because she knows she is and she probably likes being called on it.
Do you understand by now that she is southern? She is married to Randy, an "Alpha Male" who is also controlling and manipulative and to make matters more complicated her sixteen year old son, her only child, and the offspring of her first husband - or at least born while she was married to her first husband - lives with them. He, David, is also controlling and manipulative and he is just sixteen and we know what that means - trouble. He was living in Texas with his father but he was a handful of trouble and got packed off to live with Mom. Thatís what we know about him at the start of all this.
What we know about Charlotte is her rage and anger. "I am full of violence," she murmurs to her mirror at the top of the play and shouts again to no one in particular, but in the hearing of her present husband, in the second act. We already know this about her. We have been watching that violence build in her and we are prepared for its sudden outbursts. They donít surprise us because we have been warned. Everyone has been warned.
This is a new play and one that has so much going for it, and so much going against it, that it is hard to keep the words under control. For long-time theater-goers, or even people who spent last summer in Williamstown, the title "Crimes of the Heart" will come to mind at some point. There are too many similarities here - southern woman accused of a heinous crime flirts with her much younger lawyer while denying everything and lying about some of it. Sound familiar? There are strains of other southern epics from the above Beth Henley to the old-time southern crosses of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. Perhaps that is inevitable when a playwright turns on the accent and the charm and the plot. Perhaps it will always be that way. We have only this new play to talk about.
Charlotte has the power to heal goats that are ailing. Her mother has psychic connections with many people including David Letterman. Her brother can read their motherís mind and Charlotte claims to read her sonís mind, but she is only clever. Like David, her son, Charlotte has a "bulging I.Q." and it drives her nearly mad. Randy has a temper that he uses to control his wife, only she has her "room" and it is where she can release herself of his hold on her.
Ms. Whitley has invested in her characters - all of them - considerable qualities and aspects that make each of them fascinating. She has plopped them down in the middle of a crisis or two and let them flounder as best they can. She has given them funny things to say and quirky things to do. She has thrown in that violence and spread it around. She has made love happen and she allows flirting to proceed. And, sadly, she has withheld all truths until the final ten minutes of the play. In many instances she hasnít even hinted at things, hasnít allowed us to find the truths in the actions and intentions of her people. Robbing us of information that would bring us into the play is not the best direction to take here. Slowly dropping hints of the realities behind these fantastic actions would allow us into the world she has created. We are left outside, almost eavesdroppers on the truth and when we finally learn all the necessary secrets at the end of the second act we are actually left at the end of the second act of what should be a three act play, for there is no resolution in fact, there is only the supposition of the next scene, and the next after that one.
That is life, you say, and you are right. But this is not life. This is a play about people on the edge of crisis and at the end that crisis has been exacerbated and a new one has been introduced. It is a most frustrating experience to have lived with these folks for a while, to have gotten involved and to be shown the door when something is about to happen. A good play with fascinating characters inhabiting is in need of a doctor to come in, take the playís temperature and discover the cure.
The company is exemplary. Keira Naughton, making a local career playing odd, controlling women this season, is a fabulous Charlotte. She is sexy, naughty, haughty and beautiful, plain and ugly, mean and charming. Naughton knows how to maneuver her way through the abrupt and odd changes in mood and intent here. She can wind her way around the men in her life and around the inner aspects of her heart and mind with alacrity. Her angular face and slender body remain the focal points for our attention no matter who else is on stage with her. Her opening monologue in silence is as eloquent as anything else on the Shakespeare stages this summer. "Divorce is the key to being loose and free," she intones and in doing so she, or her character, locks in one more piece of false evidence in Charlotteís story, but when she says that line, and so many others like it, we donít really care if there is truth or falsehood on her lips, we just enjoy it. Naughton brings to life the inner and outer woman in this play and her skill at doing so is absolutely flawless.
Her husband is played by Thomas Kee. There is that in his playing which hides so much about the character. We have no real sense of his place in society, his actual age, or even his level of intelligence and education. We only see the "alpha male" he is described as being by his wife. He moves with sensuality. He talks with an accent that cannot be instantly placed. He hides his expressive eyes behind his large moustache, a neat trick done without a physical quirk, but just through his facial expressions which always focus our attention chinward. This actor completely disappears into the role he is playing.
David is played by David Rosenblatt. His intensity is wonderful. His fight scene with Randy, uncredited and so attributable to the director, is dynamic and just realistic enough to be startling. He handles everything so well that in the final scene of this play (before the unwritten or at least unused Act Three) he becomes too much the focus of our attention.
John, the Nashville/Atlanta lawyer who comes to the aid of Charlotte is played nicely by Daniel Berger-Jones. This is a trap role, hard to play well enough to be innocuous. Berger-Jones is a good actor and he makes the innocence of the man highly visible, perhaps a shade too much so as it robs his scenes of much needed conflict as Charlotte flirts with him and he only talks about his girlfriend.
Walsh has done a fine job directing all of this. More work on the script - and who knows how much has already taken place here - would help, but he paints interesting pictures with his cast and no one could do more to draw attention to the right place in that awkward tell-all final scene with its flashback and its three principles engaged in ignoring one another. With the aid of a perfect and awful home environment designed by Susan Zeeman Rogers and ideal clothing by Govane Lohbauer even Matthew Millerís quirky lighting falls into place as the play takes us back and forth in time.
A new play to open a new theater, one which is still finding itself, is a wonderful risk to take, but Shakespeare and Company is up to the challenge. A beautiful and elegant lobby - somewhat reminiscent of a movie palace - leads to a gracefully designed intimate space containing 168 seats. I doubt thereís a bad one in the house.
The company requires congratulations on this combination of play and space. To open a new performance venue in these hard times is an adventure and so is the life and times of Charlotte Clark. Together they bring an enhanced experience to those theater afficionados willing to jump into that adventure. While not completely satisfying - even the theaterís seats are hard to take at moments - this show about a woman on the verge of truth is certainly worth a visit. Just donít make reservations at the local motel and donít expect to be invited to breakfast. You wouldnít want to be there.
Daniel Berger-Jones and Naughton; photo: Kevin Sprague
Kee and David Rosenblatt; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Goatwoman of Corvis County plays at the new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA through August 31. Seating at this new space is open - first come first chosen. For information and tickets call 413-637-3353.