Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008
“I am so full of violence.”
That is one of the first things we hear Charlotte Clark (Keira Naughton) say in Christine Whitley’s new play The Goatwoman of Corvis County, which is officially opening the new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company.
We have seen her being angry, but, as she sits in front of her mirror in the little room above the barn that her current husband (at age 37 she’s on her fifth marriage) has built for her, dreamily brushing her long blonde hair, she does not look like a woman full of violence. It turns out that she one though, but she is has been filled with violence by other people, the way you fill a cup with water, and that violence is directed inwards rather than outwards.
Charlotte (Keira Naughton), her current husband Randy (Thomas Kee), and David (David Rosenblatt), Charlotte’s 16-year-old son from her first marriage at 18, live together in the house outside of Nashville, Tennessee, that Charlotte’s fourth husband, a podiatrist named Bill, bought for them to live in. In a flashback we see Charlotte meeting Randy at a bar almost immediately after Bill has brought her to live in the country. They almost immediately begin a torrid affair, and Charlotte discovers that she has a healing way with animals, primarily goats, that earns her the nickname of the play’s title.
Randy is a contractor, and one of his promises to Charlotte in the heat of courtship is that he will build her a big house. Two years into their marriage he has only managed to build her her own little room over the barn, and this failure is a bone of contention between them.
David’s presence is another. David has been living with Charlotte and Randy for less than six months at the time the play takes place. He was living with his father in Nashville and getting into trouble with the law, stealing car stereos and the like. Now, as Charlotte poignantly observes, he is finding different kinds of trouble to get into in the country. Charlotte refers to Randy several times as an “Alpha male,” but David more honestly calls him a “redneck” and an “asshole.” There is no love lost between the two men with whom Charlotte shares her home.
But the tension between her son and husband is not the greatest of Charlotte’s problems. She has been “unjustly accused” of stealing money from the Devotion to Animals Consignment Shop which she ran for a few months at the request of the head of that charity. Charlotte has in fact taken the money and spent it on clothes and jewelry for herself. She wants Randy, whose father is the local sheriff, to “fix things” for her. Randy is steadfastly refusing to help. So Charlotte calls up an old boyfriend who is now a prominent Nashville lawyer, who wisely refuses to help her himself, but sends along John (Daniel Berger-Jones), a young lawyer from his staff instead. Charlotte’s car is barely running and she can’t go in to Nashville to meet with John, so he comes to her house. This does not please either David or Randy, who are both all too familiar with Charlotte’s way with men.
Some how, Charlotte is not whole. Whitley, Naughton, and director Robert Walsh give us the clues slowly and carefully. Naughton has a knack for playing kooky women, which is why I found her so implausibly cast as the solid and predictable Sonya in the Barrington Stage production of Uncle Vanya last summer. Here she is in her element, playing Charlotte’s idiosyncrasies with minute attention to detail.
Kee brings Randy’s bare-faced passions vividly to life. This is an honest man – when he loves, he loves deeply and when he hates, it is the same. Randy loves Charlotte, who in her turn may not be capable of loving anyone but herself. We never see her with any of her other husbands, but she appreciates Randy, and they share a special bond.
Whitley has not drawn the character of David particularly clearly, and Rosenblatt, playing several years younger than his actual age, seems a bit at sea. Other than the fact that he is saddled with an insane mother, we don’t learn much about David. Just how much of his youth has been spent with Charlotte is left unclear. Is he merely acting out like many, many adolescents do, or is he the next in a long line of mentally unstable folks. The latter may indeed be true, if one believes what Charlotte says about her birth family.
Berger-Jones gives a delightfully nuanced performance as the young lawyer thrust into the middle of the chaos that is Charlotte’s life and marriage. He literally reeks of preppiness and his reactions to the violence and insanity he confronts is classic.
Whitley has not written a great play, but she has not written a bad one. I am not at all sure what goats have to do with anything, but the last line is a dilly. It largely depends on your taste for the Southern Gothic genre of Beth Henley and Tennessee Williams in whose footsteps Whitley is following. The cast is excellent and Walsh has obviously had a hand in getting the very best out of the actors and playwright. Whitley has returned to Shakespeare & Company after many years working with their Training Program as a certified Linklater voice teacher. Goatwoman... was given a staged reading during last year’s Studio Festival.
In a season that has presented several very well received new plays, Goatwoman... doesn’t stand out for me as one of the best, but I think a major part of the problem is the performance space in the new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre. I was privileged to attend the invitation-only July 12th performance of Shirley Valentine which was the first time an audience had been let in to the theatre. The risers hadn’t been put in yet so all the seating (individual upholstered folding chairs) were on the floor. This meant that the sight-lines weren’t ideal, but it also meant that I was left with an incomplete image of exactly what the size and shape of the playing space would be when the permanent seating was installed.
As previously, the acting space is very wide and relatively shallow. The stage is not very high off the floor, and it snuggles right up against the back wall of the theatre, with doors on either side giving access to what I assume is a whole other room that forms the backstage area. Frankly, I have never given much thought to “back of the house” accommodations – they aren’t my concern as a critic – but in this space I was constantly aware that people were rumbling around back there in this other room that I couldn’t see and it bugged me. It wasn’t that they were noisy, it was that you could see straight in the doors and I knew there was all sorts of backstage action going on in those two black holes.
The seating is on three sides of the stage, with the two side seating areas at sharp right angles to the center section. I sat in the center, but last time I sat on the side. Tina Packer did a good job, covering the whole stage area and playing to the entire house in Shirley Valentine but Goatwoman... is more of a proscenium show and I was aware that when the actors were all grouped way down one end of the stage, which they frequently were, that they were very far away from the audience at the opposite end.
Susan Zeeman Rogers has designed an awkward set. It is, in fact, the Shirley Valentine set (or vice versa) which features an entire, working kitchen. Food is cooked on the stove and dishes are washed in the sink. Then Charlotte’s little room is oddly crammed into a corner. It is supposed to be “over the barn” but it is only a few steps above the kitchen, accessed by a funny little door wedged up against the wall behind the refrigerator. The “barn” beneath is represented by some bales of hay and a glass baby’s bottle from which motherless young animals are presumably fed. I would imagine the room and the door are pretty much invisible to the people sitting at the far end, behind a rack of Charlotte’s illicit clothing purchases.
And the seats themselves are a problem too. They are not comfortable (this is based on a mini-poll of people of different ages, shapes, and genders seated near me). In addition, the risers are not deep enough, and rows are accessible only from one end. While I am sure that Shakespeare & Company is fully in compliance with the regulations, the seating configuration doesn’t feel safe. People were worried about falling off the edge of the risers onto the row below as they squeezed past people who were already seated to get to or from seats further in. I sat all the way at the dead end of a long row, and it took quite a while for the rows to empty at intermission and at the conclusion. I don’t like to think what might have happen in an emergency evacuation, although I suppose the chairs could be hastily tossed on to the stage to allow the audience to walk straight down the risers.
It is obvious that the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre is still a work in progress. I will look forward to seeing what changes have been made by January. when Elizabeth Aspenlieder opens there in Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates.
The Shakespeare and Company production of The Goatwoman of Corvis County runs through August 31 in the new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. the show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. I would not bring children under high school age because of the violence and rough language.
The theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. Performances in the evenings run at 8:00 p.m. and in the afternoons at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $60. For a complete listing of productions and schedules, to inquire about student, senior, Berkshire resident and Rush Tix, or to receive a brochure, please visit the website at www.shakespeare.org or call the Box Office at (413) 637-3353. For group visits, contact Group Sales Manager Victoria Vining at (413) 637-1199 ext. 132.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008