The power, magic & malice of words in the fascinating, visceral, philosophical, sensual Knives in Hens

Clockwise from top: Jonathon Young, Diana Bentley & Jim Mezon. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Coal Mine Theatre kicks off its 6th season with David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, directed by Leora Morris. Set in 15th century Scotland in the outskirts of a small, stifling rural village, it’s a fascinating, visceral, philosophical and sensual look at the evolution of words and language—and the power such awareness brings. Knives in Hens opened at the Coal Mine Theatre to a sold-out house last night.

Pony William (Jim Mezon) is a ploughman; growing and harvesting grain on his land with his young wife, simply known as Young Woman (Diana Bentley). He keeps a tight rein on her, her micromanaged days working around their home dutifully reported to him; he even manages her thoughts. She’s not allowed in the barn; he says it’s because the horses don’t know her and she’ll fright them. She has pensive flights of fancy, wondering about what things are called and struggling to describe what she sees out in the small world around her; and he discourages these, especially around their village neighbours.

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Diana Bentley & Jim Mezon. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

When a young mare shows signs of a difficult oncoming labour, and with the grain harvested and needing immediate grinding, William sends his wife to the mill with five sacks of grain, issuing a stern warning about the character of the miller and precise instructions as to how to behave during the transaction. According to William, the miller is universally hated—a widower rumoured to have killed his wife and child.

The Young Woman finds an unexpected kindred spirit in the miller Gilbert Horn (Jonathon Young), who writes his thoughts down using pen and paper—translating his thoughts into words that will last long after the thoughts have dissipated. As she spends time with him, the Young Woman’s curious, fevered attempts at finding the words for moments she witnesses on the land blossom and grow—and with this mastery comes increased power and self-confidence.

Bentley brings a feisty, curious edge to the Young Woman; always searching and questioning—despite her husband’s insistence that she keep her wondering mind to herself. She reaches out into the world and into her mind for the words to express that world. Mezon’s old patriarchal ploughman combines a gruff severity with doting adoration; but William seems to be more enamoured of his horses than his wife. The Young Woman is something he saw and wanted; something to put to work around the house and to warm his bed. That she has no name is telling, for to name something—or someone—is to make it useful and give it power. Young gives Gilbert a somewhat sly, enigmatic vibe; amused and playful regarding the villagers’ gossip about him, Gilbert is a sensitive, introspective and even lonely man. A man who longs to see and know the world outside the mill and the small-minded confines of the village. Like the Young Woman, his mind and heart are too big for this small life—and he needs to get out. And it is he who asks the Young Woman’s name; and though she writes it, we never hear it spoken aloud.

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Jonathon Young. Set and lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Costume design by Michelle Tracey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Kaitlin Hickey’s earthy set, combined with a heavenly lighting design, puts us in mind both of the sun and the light of knowledge, shining down on the Earth and its creatures—highlighting the divine and profane aspects of this story. And if you cross the raised playing area to the seating on the other side, or to use the washroom, you can feel and smell the earth beneath your feet. Christopher Ross-Ewart’s dramatic string-dominated sound design underscores the beating heart of land and its people, and the soaring, magical and menacing power of words. And Michelle Tracey’s period costumes mark when we are and who these people are; simple rural folk in an age of religion and superstition.

Divine and profane, poetic and pragmatic, visceral and cerebral—the journey from thought to word is fraught with religious and societal meaning and repercussions. Thoughts entering the mind are thought to come from God; whereas words and language are a corporeal, human construct. We are reminded of the Creation story—the characters mirroring the three main players of God, Adam and Eve. The word made flesh. And as God named the creatures of the Earth, so too does man name what he sees. Does that make us God?

Knives in Hens continues at Coal Mine Theatre until October 13; advance tickets available online. Please note the 7:30 p.m. curtain time for evening performances; matinees are Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

 

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Toronto Fringe: Drowning in a small town in the haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before

Models Abby Gillam, Ryan Helgason & Lauren Helgason. Photo by Chloë Whitehorn.

 

Mad River Theatre takes us to a small town by the water as a family struggles to overcome tragedy in Chloë Whitehorn’s haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before; directed by Heather Keith and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Lucy (Mary Wall), Drew (Dave Martin) and their teenage daughter Pippa (Brianna Richer) have just arrived in a small town by the water to start a new life, their move assisted by local residents Everett (Jack Morton) and his guardian Fenwick (Loriel Medynski). Pippa is a troubled poet, surrendering the dark contents of her creative, intelligent mind onto paper. Lucy is feeling out of place in her own skin; and Drew, who feels so far away, just wants everyone to be okay. Everett is smitten with Pippa—and Lucy—and the attractions are mutual; and Fenwick’s just trying to keep it together as her adopted son, a reminder of the friend she loved, is on his way to manhood.

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, intimate, ethereal piece where everyday moments float by like leaves on water. Richer’s restless, introspective wild child is nicely balanced by a playful, creative spirit. Wall’s Lucy is part caged animal, part cougar on the hunt as she grapples with her identity as wife and mother and finds herself lacking. Martin’s Drew avoids the stereotypical frustrated, estranged husband; Drew is a hurt, gentle soul who genuinely cares and wants to help, but finds himself at a loss to do so. Morton’s Everett is an endearing combination of lusty youth, optimism and kindness as he navigates his way through the early stages of manhood. And Medynski brings a gentle wisdom to the frank, no-nonsense Fenwick, who’s dealing with both a past loss (Everett’s mother) and an impending loss of her own (Everett growing up).

I first saw an early, shorter version of the play at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in 2018; and was happy to see its evolution. It combines everyday, intimate moments with poetry, and word play and introspection; woven with images and perspectives of water, the characters float around, dive into and drown in their lives as they grasp and gasp for connection, identity and meaning. The water almost becomes a sixth character here. And the minimalist set, incorporating black cubes to denote separate spaces in the story, places a focus on the words and characters as they glide in and out of moments, memories and musings. The result is a heightened realism that is both atmospheric and lyrical.

It is ironic that the family’s retreat to the peace and quiet of a small town forces a level of discomfiting introspection as each tries to anchor themselves within themselves and the world—a not so peaceful or quiet endeavour.

The Mourning After the Night Before continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.