Knives in Hens: The Cool Hard Stone and The Quest for More.

Shane Taylor and Robyn Kerr in KNIVES IN HENS at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Knives in Hens: The Cool Hard Stone and The Quest for More.

By Ross

Considered by many across Europe to be a modern Scottish classic, this atmospheric fable from 1996 that first premiered at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh is a brutal fable of awakening consciousness. It’s a complex study of the battle between animalistic carnality and acquired knowledge that is both powerful and insistently poetic. Written by David Harrower (Blackbird), Knives in Hens is making its NYC premiere courtesy of The Shop at 59E59 Theaters. In the small intimate space of Theater C, this stark play is placed up close and within arms reach, re-imagined most effectively from the Scottish landscape to the quasi-mythical old American frontier. With a uniquely multicultural cast, this tense and brave production retains much of it’s critique of the pastoral myth, along side a impassioned study in the equivocal nature of language. It feels perfectly at home in the dusty farmland of old Americana, so much so that the musicality of the language is hard to imagine elsewhere. Surprisingly though, with so much intensity and engagement from the talented cast, Knives in Hens remains head bound, and doesn’t translate down into our heart and our emotional core. For a play that speaks to the struggle from passivity and religiosity towards enlightenment, in the end, it may have taken that battle too seriously as the learned soul comes out of this the winner.
Robyn Kerr and Shane Taylor in KNIVES IN HENS at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

As directed by Paul Takacs (Dark Vanilla Jungle at HERE), the piece begins with a violent but highly charged erotic dance. This man, who is known to the town folk as Pony William, the ploughman (Shane Taylor), is newly married to a young and naive girl who is simple called ‘Young Woman’ (Robyn Kerr). To name something in this rural community is to give it power and size, and she has little to none. She is there, belonging to William almost in the same way that the ploughman owns and loves his horses. Set against a large and impressively constructed wooden wall rising above a plain brown wooden floor, designed beautifully by Steven C. Kemp (Tick, Tick,…BOOM!), the two create a thrilling stylistic dance wrapped in each other’s bodies. The dynamic is animalistic, passionate,and tied up in raw intensity. The bodies move with an edge towards aggression and domination set to a powerful and eloquent score by sound designer and composer Toby Jaguar Algya (Baghdaddy). Although the dance lasts a tad too long and the lighting could have been less straightforward and more graceful, the story that these two tell is definitive. The close proximity of the actors create an atmosphere that practically smells of the earth, soil, and their sweat. One can almost feel the warmth in the wood and the earth, while imagining the coldness of the fall air. With generally superb lighting by Dante Olivia Smith (HERE Arts’ Professor Brenner) and costumes by Sydney Gallas (Yale Rep’s Peerless), the visuals are ripe and perfectly set for the telling of this multi-dimensional fable, set precariously in a pre-industrial, God-fearing town where enlightenment is viewed with cold suspicion and burning hate. 

Devin E. Haqq, Shane Taylor and Robyn Kerr in KNIVES IN HENS. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The ‘Young Woman’ at the heart of this slow turning stone wheel, most dutifully and passionately portrayed by Kerr (Broadway’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) is a curious wide-eyed believer of the town’s archaic fear-based religion. She has been carved, chiseled and chosen to be the wife of the village ploughman, Pony Williams, at a ripe young age, and has embraced her place in his home and bed. We can feel her curiosity of the world that surrounds her, and the language of the enlightened grow regardless of how hard Pony Williams tries to keep her reined in. This horse is a bit too wild, and her imagination and hunger leads her down an extraordinary country road towards articulacy, demanding to know the words of all the creations she sees about her in hopes that they will lead her towards God, or something else. Taylor (NY Fringe’s The Love Talker), as Pony Williams, is powerful and solid in the way that a man who lives connected to the earth and soil should move and be built. His voice rings with the back woods sound of a preacher, calling forth God to show his divinity, and trying to make all kneel before his glory. He uses that intensity in an attempt to chide his wife to ignore her growing inquisitiveness, and instill a fear of the learned, especially when it comes to the man that they call the Miller.

Robyn Kerr and Devin E. Haqq in KNIVES IN HENS at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Like the rest of the town, the ‘Young Woman’ is taught to fear and hate the local miller who goes by the name of Gilbert Horn (Devin E. Haqq). He is not of the earth, but is seen as a shrewd exploiter who profits off of the hard work of the farmers. Portrayed by the easy-going Haqq (NYSX’s Much Ado About Nothing), the miller is an outsider. The religious townsfolk feel that a man that reads and uses the written language to record his internal musings is not to be trusted, and Haqq does a good job portraying an opposing force to the fiery Pony William. His quiet engagement helps feed the ‘Young Woman’s long-suppressed desires for growth and enlightenment, and although she initially puts faith in her fear, she finds in him a source of intellectual and emotional expression, that few would understand. She is liberated by this man, giving her the strength and conviction to attempt to change, and ride forward into a stronger place of being. What happens next is not surprising at all, but what feels like a full circle in the storytelling and an ending, turns out to be not an ending at all.  After that moment, the large stone wheel keeps turning, and the ‘Young Woman’ grows into something not quite expected; a giver of life and an independent person, without much need for anyone. 
Robyn Kerr and Devin E. Haqq in KNIVES IN HENS at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The simplistic power of this fable is imbued with the subtle strength of words and a fierce desire for liberation above and beyond the foolish superstitions held by the town. Every intense word spoken by the ploughman and his wife echo that fierceness and passion, but the experience brought forth very little emotional response within my soul. Although Harrower’s seminal work suggests an inner quest for knowledge and freedom from the norm, the play and this production is surprisingly unmoving. Even the beautifully choreographed act of liberation and violence by the Miller and the ‘Young Woman’ did not register beyond the intellectual bounders. We are left to try to solve the puzzle of the fable, and attempt to unpack the ending, leaving very little room for emotional response. I left Knives in Hens slightly confused, eager to understand, but emotionally as cold as the stone wheel at the Miller’s.
Robyn Kerr and Devin E. Haqq in KNIVES IN HENS at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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