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.

 

Self-discovery & reconnecting with the land in the delightful, magical, thought-provoking There is No Word for Wilderness

Shaquille Pottinger, Lisa Hamalainen, Jack Comerford, Joe Recinos & Morgan Johnson. Costume design by Beatriz Arevalo. Mask design by Alexandra Simpson. Puppet design by Patricia Mader. Dress rehearsal photo by Producer Rebecca Ballarin.

 

Animacy Theatre Collective and Arts in the Parks present Lisa Hamalainen’s interdisciplinary, land-based theatrical nature walk There is No Word for Wilderness, directed by Alexandra Simpson and running at Earl Bales Park (4169 Bathurst St.), Picnic Area #5. Mask, puppetry and music combine in this delightful, magical and thought-provoking journey of self-discovery, inner healing and wisdom gained as a young woman ventures into the forest. With the help of some unexpected guides, she reconnects with the land and finds her true heart. The inclusive and informative post-performance Anishinaabe ceremony and teaching, facilitated by Shelba Deer, adds context and depth of understanding of the piece.

When a Young Woman (Lisa Hamalainen) finds herself stranded on a rural highway, she finds an unlikely guide in a talking Hare (Shaquille Pottinger, puppet designed by Patricia Mader)! As they make their way through the forest, they encounter other animal guides along the way—a wise Owl (Joe Recinos), a sly Fox (Morgan Johnson) and a drowsy Fish (Jack Comerford)—and a walk in the woods becomes a journey of self-discovery, inner healing, and reconnection with the land, air and water.

We are led from scene to scene by stage manager Zoë Ruth Fairless (who also plays the ukulele) and accompanied by composer Anders Azzopardi on trombone, making our way in a counter-clockwise direction on a circular path as we follow the Young Woman on her journey. As you walk between scenes, you become aware of the sights, sounds and smells of the forest: the crunch of the gravel path beneath your feet, the aroma of leaves and wood, the brilliance of green trees against a blue sky—and, later, crickets chirping as the light wanes and darkness falls upon the campfire circle.

Pottinger is a delight as Hare—our jovial guide and narrator—who is ready for his close-up; his reactions to unknown human trappings like cellphones and reception are a reminder that our machines are not as vital to our lives as we think they are; and are kind of silly, when you think about it. There’s more than meets the eye to Hamalainen’s fastidious, driven, professional Young Woman. While she’s caught in the rat race of a job she despises, she’s no soulless cog in the corporate machine; her compassion and love of nature make her open to this journey and the self-awareness and wisdom it brings.

Recinos brings a graceful majesty to the wise, enigmatic Owl; his words of wisdom are like a puzzle for the Young Woman to solve. There is no word for wilderness in his language—for him, home is wherever you are, where your heart is. Johnson combines woodland animal cuteness with an edgy trickster vibe as Fox. Don’t let her adorable appearance fool you; she’s a savvy, sly one—and sees more than just a fellow creature of the forest when she looks at Hare. Comerford does double duty, with two sharply drawn contrasting characters: Young Man, the Young Woman’s self-absorbed, hyper-ambitious jerk of a co-worker; and the joyful, curious and cheeky Fish. Magically able to move about on land for a time, Fish reminds us that our discarded plastic bottles, bags and trash create horrific, dangerous conditions for the creatures of the water, not to mention the water itself.

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Hare (manipulated and characterized by Shaquille Pottinger). Puppet design by Patricia Mader. Dress rehearsal photo by Producer Rebecca Ballarin.

The performance is both complimented and highlighted by the beautiful, imaginative puppet (Patricia Mader), mask (Alexandra Simpson) and costume (Beatriz Arevalo) designs—utilizing fabric, wood and recycled items. Azzopardi’s composition incorporates vocal and instrumental music to great effect; and we’re even invited to join in.

Following each performance, the audience is invited to stay seated around a campfire (back at the starting point) for Anishinaabe ceremony and teaching with Shelba Deer. Relating traditional beliefs, and spiritual and healing practices, Deer’s teaching offers a deeper understanding and context for the performance we’ve just witnessed; sharing the wisdom that—Indigenous or settler—we are all human beings walking this Earth, partaking of Mother Earth’s bounty. And each of us has a spirit and a heart—the awareness and acknowledgement of which will help us discover our true paths.

Like the lanterns we carry throughout this journey, we are all small points of light energy on the Earth. And even if you live in the city, standing on concrete, you’re still standing on the Earth—living, breathing, drinking and eating on this planet. We are not separate from the land; we are a part of it. So we’d better take good care.

There is No Word for Wilderness continues in Earl Bales Park on September 19-21, 24-26 and 28 at 6:00 p.m., with rain dates on Sept 22 and 29; admission is free. There will be an ASL interpreter present for Shelba Deer’s post-performance ceremony and teaching on Sept 26. Check out Animacy’s Facebook event for more info.

Directions: Earl Bales Park, Picnic Area #5. For travel directions (by car or TTC), scroll down on the show’s web page. Look out for the flagpole with the Canadian flag at the end—there will be Arts in the Parks canopy and banners to mark the spot.

All performances are relaxed performances (for more info on accessibility, relaxed performances and the ASL interpretation, scroll down on the show’s web page). Come dressed for cooler evening September temperatures and wear comfy walking shoes. Bug spray is also a good idea, especially along the forest trail; if you forget, show staff and volunteers have some to share.