Here a Moo, There a Moo, but Old MacDonald’s It’s Not

The New York Times

By RACHEL SALTZ Published: May 7, 2010

The first thing you hear in “Milk,” Emily DeVoti’s offbeat, flawed new play, is the mooing of cows. A strangely comforting sound, it represents the domesticated life of the Massachusetts dairy farm where the drama is set. But this is no peaceable kingdom: bankruptcy threatens the farm’s existence, and something wild lurks just beyond the fence.

“Milk,” a production of New Georges and New Feet Productions at Here Arts Center, blends realism with a touch of the fantastic. That wild thing is Auroch (Carolyn Baeumler), the world’s last undomesticated cow. She can talk (and read), though only Meg (Jordan Baker), who owns the farm with her husband, Ben (Jon Krupp), hears her.

A strange New York businessman, James (Peter Bradbury), who wants to “collaborate” in the farm’s “living atmosphere,” provides its unlikely salvation. (Too unlikely.) He pays Meg and Ben a tidy sum, and parks himself and his daughter in the country with them.

Mr. Bradbury’s intensity gives James a sinister cast, and you wonder if this deus ex machina will bring supernatural trouble. But while aggressive — he wants to introduce bulls to the farm — he’s no monster, and the charge he brings to the farm is of the human, all-too-human sort.

In fact, with the exception of Ms. Baeumler’s cow-suited Auroch, the creatures in “Milk” are pretty ordinary, as are their problems. Meg is restless, and she and Ben have a teetering marriage; their son, Matt (an excellent Noah Robbins), is eager to experience life outside the milking shed; and James and his daughter (Anne Kull) are running away from pain.

Ms. DeVoti’s drama often seems ordinary too, or diffuse. Yet there is an engagingly original streak running through her writing. Her scenes don’t all work, but they can come at you from unusual angles, and she fills “Milk” with interesting details (lots of cow knowledge) and unexpected touches. For example, Meg, a graduate school dropout, isn’t a lapsed literary type, but a mathematician.

The director, Jessica Bauman, stages action deftly (especially nice is a wordless bit in which pails are handed back and forth from the house to the barn) and has assembled a fine production team. (Kudos to Susan Zeeman Rogers’s just-abstract-enough set and Amy Altadonna’s witty sound design.) But she doesn’t pull great things out of the actors. In the central role of Meg, Ms. Baker is too brittle to win our sympathy, and her decisive action at the end doesn’t pack an emotional punch.

Neither, finally, does “Milk.” Though it may send you home ruminating on its themes: city vs. country; wild vs. domesticated; stability vs. freedom.

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