Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Knives in Hens
Upstream Theatre

Here's a play that is almost painfully sparse and, at the same time, transcendently poetic. Knives in Hens puts its heroine in lonely servitude to her hard-scrapple farmer husband, but unexpectedly she thrives, being in lyrical harmony with the land. And under the beautiful direction of Philip Boehm, the three-person cast finds a tingling magical realism in the raw lives of pre-industrial Scotland.

We are advised that no children or young people will be admitted inside the theater, and it quickly becomes obvious why: the "Young Woman" and her husband (the excellent Magan Wiles and Christopher Hickey) engage in long bouts of balletic love-making nearly every time he walks in the door after a hard day in the fields. It really is hypnotic to see, though on a purely technical level it's barely "R" rated. Mostly, the play gets by on the power of each character's grand vision for their life, despite their meager circumstance.

Peter Mayer, as the despised town miller, brings his particular, astonishing intensity to his scenes with Ms. Wiles as she discovers a new kind of love. And the play is set in an old abandoned church, which gives him some spectacular moments of repose up by a river wheel set in the altar, as a love triangle takes shape. Whether he actually appears later to blow magic dust onto the sleeping farmer and his wife, or whether the farmer is really having a little something-something going on out in the stable, is probably open to interpretation.

What is not in dispute is that the production owes a great debt to the musician Farshid Soltanshahi, who plays throughout, and to a highly perceptive crew of artisans who've created such a mysterious world. The Young Woman's long recitations of blank verse stir up something strange and mystical in the 1995 script by David Harrower. The unsettling title suggests that human understanding must plunge (like a knife) into the base and the unremarkable, to recognize the magical reality of existence in the human mind. And, indeed, both the Young Woman and Pony William (Mr. Hickey) live their lives on the frontiers of consciousness.

So, you're asking yourself, what's the big selling point in Knives in Hens? The best answer may be found in Magan Wiles' mesmerizing ability to turn the simple into the profound and in her unsettling transformation once she finds someone who thinks her gift is truly special. Vying for second place in the list of selling points are the hypnotic love-making, and the eye-crossing overlay of dream upon reality.

All that said, it's no picnic to sit on a hard church pew for 100 minutes, without a break. Perhaps it gives us a taste of that old pioneer spirit. But it's definitely not for the Andrew Lloyd Webber crowd.

Knives in Hens continues through May 6, 2007 at 305 South Skinker Blvd. For information, call (314) 863-4999, or email

Young Woman: Magan Wiles
Gilbert Horn: Peter Mayer
Pony William: Christopher Hickey

Director: Philip Boehm
Stage Manager: Patrick Siler
Set: Philip Boehm, Taylor Ramsey
Costumes: Michele Siler
Lighting: Ryan Lilly
Technical Director: Taylor Ramsey
Assistant Stage Manager: Kathy Jarowicz
Movement Consultant: Alex Shaw
Production Assistants: Kate Bonacorsi; Ellen Geissal; Marie-Sophie Ritter; Alex Shaw

Music by Farshid Soltanshahi
Sculptures by Will Valk
Painting by Fabio Rodriguez

-- Richard T. Green

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