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Knives in Hens

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 29, 2017

Shane Taylor and Robyn Kerr
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Though playwright David Harrower hails from Scotland, his compelling if occasionally opaque 1995 play Knives in Hens, opening today at 59E59 Theaters in a production by The Shop, has the feel of an Appalachian folk tale that has been shaped through many generations of retelling, filled in over time with bits of music, dance, Biblical allusions, and a call for a woman's right to self-determination. You might subtitle it "The Legend of Young Woman and Pony William" after the pair of dirt-poor, hardscrabble characters at its center.

As the play opens, it seems as if these two are alone in the world, an Adam and Eve inhabiting some pre-industrial (or post-apocalyptic) landscape. Steven C. Kemp's set design is dominated by a cabin wall made up of rough-cut timbers. On the floor, there are bags of grain that also serve as bedding, and some scattered articles of clothing. As the couple starts to interact, following a silent sexual dance (choreographed by Yasmine Lee), you quickly gather that Pony William (Shane Taylor) has the upper hand in this relationship. If he's not exactly a brute, he is gruff and condescending to his wife (Robyn Kerr), whom he addresses only as "Woman" and takes it as his prerogative to assign her duties around their modest homestead.

If we are to take Pony William and Young Woman as a metaphoric Adam and Eve, they are living in some harsh land after the expulsion from Eden. Indeed, we learn they actually are members of a larger community, a village where Pony William works as a ploughman. His life and worldview are set: work the fields, tend the horses, eat, have sex with whomever is handy, and sleep. But Young Woman yearns for something more than a lifetime of unending drudgery, bound forever to her lout of a husband.

Her redemption comes from unexpected quarters when Pony William sends her to take their grain to the miller, Gilbert Horn (Devin E. Hagg), and to wait at the mill until he grinds it into flour. If Horn isn't exactly the devil his last name suggests, he is certainly seen that way by the villagers. Young Woman has been taught all her life to hate and fear him as the epitome of evil, a sorcerer who steals from the villagers even as they need to trust him with their precious harvest.

Young Woman's encounter with Horn is terrifying to her, yet ultimately they connect in surprising ways that open within her a power that will feed her starving soul and set her free. The miller is a literate man, a reader of books and a chronicler of his life through the written journal he keeps. He passes on that power, the only real magic he has at his command, in the form of an unexpected gift he gives to Young Woman, a pen and paper. Through these, she learns to gather and express her thoughts (about nature, about God, about herself) and to imagine a different kind of life than the one that she has been thrust into. Freed up in this way, she learns to use language to control her environment, even to lie and to curse. (She doesn't exactly know what "Fuck Off!" means, but she likes how saying it makes her feel.) She also figures out a way to rid herself of the burden that is Pony William.

Spare and often lyrical in its exposition and dialogue, Knives in Hens is open to varied interpretations, including imagery suggestive of a slave narrative. Sometimes the path becomes obscured in the layers of meaning and in the clash between the poetic and the mundane. But director Paul Takacs keeps things anchored largely within the post-Eden analogy; there's even a scene of Pony William chomping on an apple, then offering one to Young Woman. All three performers do a fine job playing their near-mythic characters, but the play truly belongs to Robyn Kerr, who beautifully captures the transformation of Young Woman from a state of child-like innocence to one of self-determination. By the end of the play, with neither man remaining on the scene, this Eve has fully digested her apple and is quite prepared to be in charge of her own life.

Knives in Hens
Through November 12
59E59 Theater C, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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