The Cow Play is a trivial comedy about serious things. Like the award-winning American playwright Sarah Ruhl, writer Ed Harris understands that sometimes absurdity is the only approach worth taking. Some topics, like depression and artistic ambition, are too difficult to approach with a perfectly straight face. To make ‘em think, make ‘em laugh, (Donald O’Connor forgot that first part). If you enjoy Ruhl’s plays, particularly The Melancholy Play, in which a woman turns into a salted almond and has to attend a support group, you will love this piece of clever, meaningful absurdism.
Everyone has problems: Owen is a failed pianist and composer. His best friend Thom has a car with a broken exhaust pipe. Owen’s girlfriend Holly is turning into a cow. The Cow Play takes an absurd situation and treats it with offhand, disinterested realism. Harris’s decision to use Holly’s bovine transformation as a metaphor for mental illness is brilliant and moving. For anyone who has ever suffered from depression or loved a clinically depressed person, Holly’s description of her mental state will feel particularly apt. She says that her mind is slowing down and fogging up. The physical pain of transforming into a ruminant is a very visceral way of representing intense mental pain. Holly knows something is wrong but she refuses to seek help, and even seems perversely fascinated by her condition. Owen loves Holly but does nothing to help her - he instead gamely eats the plates of lettuce she prepare for dinner. Owen both enables Holly and sacrifices himself for her, much to his friend’s frustration. Thom, powerfully played by Oliver Forsyth, is a selfish no-talent who may or may not be in love with Owen.
The naturalism needed to make these characters and this play work is challenging, but all of the actors cope fairly well, though there were a few moments when things slipped away from them. It’s difficult to keep things natural when arguing over whether or not to cut off someone’s tail. They work well in a cramped space, though at the beginning exits and entrances did feel a bit muddled together. It wasn’t clear at first just what one of the repeated sound effects was meant to be--horse hooves? rain?--until I realized it was applause, which felt very appropriate given Owen’s struggle with fame and success.
The Cow Play is absurdist humour at its best. There are some very funny lines, (“How did she die!?!?” “I don’t know, I wasn’t really listening”), but more importantly there is a point. The Cow Play has a whole lot more to say than 'moo'. However, if I say it’s udderly wonderful and something to ruminate over you have my permission to take me out behind the barn and shoot me.