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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Beautiful, raw, vulnerable & erotic – Nightwood & Seventh Stage’s Stockholm

Out in the lobby of the Tarragon Theatre before seeing Stockholm last night, I was chatting with a couple who were going to see The Real World? in the main space – and when I mentioned that I was going to see Stockholm, they wondered if the title referred to the capital of Sweden or the syndrome. In this case, it’s both.

The Nightwood Theatre/Seventh Stage Theatre co-production of Bryony Lavery’s play Stockholm, directed by Seventh Stage A.D. Kelly Straughan (formerly the Assoc. A.D. at Nightwood), is currently running in the Tarragon Extra Space.

Lindsay C. Walker’s set gives us an initial glimpse at the life of Todd and Kali. The ultra modern kitchen is pristine white and perfectly symmetrical except for the narrow white stairway to nowhere stage left (in the action of the play, leading to the attic). The pre-show music, designed by Verne Good with some original composition as well, is a mix of industrial and pre-fab jazz – the kind of music that you’d hear in the background at the latest hot spot resto.

When the house lights go down and the stage lights come up (design by Kimberly Purtell), both light and sound are disorienting, a focused glare and cacophony of voices, tinny and alien, as Todd emerges. He’s lost his wife Kali after they left the movie theatre. Throughout the play, Todd and Kali speak of themselves – and their relationship – in the third person, narrating their lives with a cool cinematic, and somewhat smug, detachment. Their life together is perfect: they are taking in the entire Ingmar Bergman canon, they have booked a trip to Stockholm and today is Todd’s birthday, and the celebration will be culminating in a quiet, romantic dinner at home that Todd will cook himself, complete with two bottles of expensive champagne, which Kali has purchased as a surprise.

The first sign that there are problems in the Garden of Eden is the discovery of a letter for Todd from his mother – Kali does not hide her disdain for the woman and thus begins her slow boil. Both harbour extreme feelings of vulnerability and self-doubt, emerging in brief monologue-like moments outside the present action: Todd (Jonathon Young, who Sanctuary fans will recognize as Nikola Tesla) feeling pressure to make things perfect and happy, and Kali (Melissa-Jane Shaw) madly in love but grappling with a deep jealousy of Todd’s exes  – “retro jealousy” Todd calls it – their pain expressed physically, as well as in the text.

What is remarkable about the staging of this production is the use of choreographed movement (courtesy of choreographer Susie Burpee), wordlessly presenting the exact tone and emotion of the moment – from playfully putting groceries away in perfect synchronous union to the re-enactment of their first meeting to sex, where the movement becomes primal, raw and erotic. And fight director Casey Hudecki (who Lost Girl fans will know as Anna Silk’s sword double) choreographed the more violent moments, as the temporary facade of the couple’s perfect world crumbles in the face of jealousy and distrust.

The sleek beauty of Todd and Kali’s modern reno of an old home mirrors the toxicity that lies beneath the exterior of their relationship. Once a mess of a place, they renovated it themselves with the help of Todd’s architect friend and transformed it into their dream home, a high point of pride and satisfaction. Kali retreats up the stairs to their finished attic space with Todd’s cell in an effort to keep him from calling his parents – and her jealousy is pricked to life when she snoops through his messages. And later in the play, the unfinished cellar – a crawl space, really – is evoked as they crouch in front of the kitchen island, along with horrific things both hidden in the past and glimpsed in the future.

Shaw and Young are magnificent as Kali and Todd, executing the intricate movement, dance and fight choreography with apparent ease – and breathing a complex life of love, humour, raw passion, co-dependency and vulnerability into these characters.

As the house lights come back up, the audience files out to “#1 Crush” by Garbage (which some will recognize from the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s film William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet) – a song that perfectly matches the beautiful and terrible life dance we’ve just witnessed between these two characters.

Stockholm runs in the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space until June 3, so you best get on it before it’s gone.

For more info on Seventh Stage Theatre, check out their website: www.seventhstageproductions.com/theatre

For details and reservations info, please visit the Nightwood Theatre website: http://www.nightwoodtheatre.net/index.php/whats_on/stockholm