West End Word
Posted Wednesday, May 2, 2007
Knives in Hens is a strange play. It is also the
best play now on a stage in
Out of the mainstream is where Upstream Theater, the producer of Knives in Hens, likes to locate itself. The plays they have produced in the past have in varying degrees tended more toward the literary than the dramatic. Actors have described events more than they have acted them out. These have been fascinating, challenging, intriguing, sometimes moving evenings, but not dramatically exciting evenings. Lots of words, not much action.
Words are important in Knives in Hens, too. Indeed, their use lies at the very heart of the play. And sometimes the characters stop to tell us about what they have done or thought or felt. But these monologues lead into or grow out of the intensely dramatic confrontations that make up the bulk of the play.
Playwright David Harrower has chosen to set his play in an isolated, backward, rural community at some indefinite time in the past. Two of its three characters are barely literate. They could appear simple, and the play they are in simplistic; instead, their passions and actions are both elemental and complex.
Harrower lives in
Language forms the object of the quest that drives the central character. She is a young woman not long married to a young farmer and is unsure of herself, sometimes fearful, often passive. But she wants everything in her world to have a name — just one name, a precise name. She needs that certainty. She rejects her husband’s use of a metaphor to describe her. She is only herself and can be named only by her name.
We never learn her name. The program refers to her simply as Young Woman. At one point she writes her name, but we do not hear it.
That point occurs during a crucial scene in which she suddenly begins writing, furiously. She is discovering the words she needs to name what is in her life. In writing, she discovers herself. And in her certainty about who she is, she overcomes her fear and her passivity. She acts decisively for herself.
This crucial moment occurs in the house of the miller who grinds the village’s grain. In the world that playwright Harrower has created, an ancient enmity exists between millers and the farmers whose grain they grind. The reason for this enmity is never explained. The particular miller in the play, a man named Gilbert Horn, who reads books and keeps a journal, looks down on the ignorance of the farmers. The young woman’s husband looks down on the miller as a man who does not work out in the open fields, plowing and harvesting.
Eventually the farmer sends his young wife to the miller with his grain. She goes reluctantly, filled with fear and loathing for the man. The tension in the scenes between them builds until it breaks both in the moment when the miller enables the young woman to commit words to paper and in an act of extreme violence. Freed, the young woman takes possession of her life and of her world.
We see this transformation with brilliant clarity in the performance of Magan Wiles. Wiles has already shown us the turbulence behind the young woman’s passivity, her fear and her yearning, her moments of transcendence. As always with Wiles, this is a brave performance, taking chances, making them pay off.
Peter Mayer may have an even tougher job as the miller. Initially painted unsympathetically, we gradually see that this is a proud man who has suffered and has made an incomplete peace for himself. Mayer eventually lets us see the soul of a man who guards his soul from prying eyes very carefully.
Harrower creates complexity even in the young husband, and actor Christopher Hickey shows us the character’s pride, occasional tenderness and unconscious cruel selfishness.
Boehm moves the action fluidly and smartly over the multipart set that he and Taylor Ramsey spread the long way through the former church in which Upstream Theater performs. The mill wheel always looms over the action from the front of the chancel. Ryan Lilly’s lights pick out the action, sometimes shaded, sometimes bright. Michele Siler’s costumes are universal peasant dress. And as always with Upstream’s productions, Farshid Soltanshahi’s music accompanies the action, played here with great subtlety and sensitivity.
As far as I know, this is the first production of a David
Harrower play in
• Knives in Hens continues
at Upstream Theater,