Fringe performers have to overcome any number of technical limitations when they put up their plays. For Claire Carroll, that meant having to stage a new play featuring a field full of cattle at a venue in Penn Quarter that, somewhat unfairly, boasts not a single cow.

Her simple and effective solution is to make use of the herd of silent, slack-jawed beasts that are already in there: us. By addressing her one-woman show directly to the audience — endowing us with an air of bovinity — Carroll gets to have her beef and meet it too.

Since the word ‘ruminate’ originates from the Latin ‘to chew on,’ it’s fitting that we find ourselves grazing in a field in the southwestern English countryside just as Carroll’s character, Belinda, arrives to the meadow, after trudging through the mud all day on a walking holiday. She arrives  flustered and lost, recently separated from the main trail upon which, we soon learn, her insurance salesman husband Dick treads tirelessly onward.

She’s been left behind — a theme that starts to resonate as the show progresses. Dick has sprung this vacation, Belinda confides in us, as a chance “to refresh our relationship,” but these cows ain’t seen hide nor hair of him, and it’s doubtful he’ll be looping back. They’re out of sync, Belinda explains. He’s changed since the early days, and she’s stayed the same.

This interesting, ambiguous moment of Belinda’s isolation — did husband abandon wife, or had wife been aiming to secede? — is but one slice of this narrative, which grows as organically as the grass under our feet. Although Carroll arrives to the stage adorned with windbreaker, binoculars, and backpack, she’s soon setting up a temporary camp for herself (a French press and a pair of soft slippers — much better!) and telling today’s woes to the only other living souls around.

The tale that unfolds — an entertaining brain-dump of concerns and reflections that touch on work, family, love, and faded dreams — gives us a window onto a woman who cares deeply enough to worry that she no longer cares deeply. The character of Belinda is, surely, an intimate blend of Carroll’s own particular facts and fictions, and her tone conveys both an ease of speech and a smart, succinct mind underneath.

Having spent my childhood years in the country, surrounded by pastures, I can attest to the strange power of cows to elicit confidence, and even confession. At one point in Beef Encounter, Belinda admits to finding more compassion in the eyes of the cows than in her husband’s eyes. The current underneath that comment — a longing for new friends, new places, and a new way of walking through life — is affecting in its subtlety.

The English-born Carroll fits her persona like a well-worn hiking boot, illuminating Belinda’s warm, quiet circuit of thought while still having enough fun to salt her saga with frequent jokes and humorous moments. The show is brief — about 50 minutes — but it’s the perfect length for its intended scope: a time of transition for a single waylaid soul, caught at the proverbial fork in life’s meadow path.

“It’s rather therapeutic, talking to you lot,” she says by the end. As she packs up her bag once again to move on, she smiles as if surprised by the depth of her one-way conversation. We just silently chew our cud, but we secretly like her back.

Beef Encounter has 5 performances, ending July 26, 2012, at Caos on F, 923 F St NW, Washington, DC.

Hunter rates this 4 out of a possible 5.

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