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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Ancestors calling on a hero’s journey through fear to true self in the engaging, powerful 11:11

Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

 

A.V.O. Collective brings the world premiere of its engaging, powerful production of 11:11, presented as part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project 2019, to the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage. Written/performed by trans-identified artist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown and dramaturged/directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, 11:11 is a bio-mythical monodrama journey, stretching across time, space, and the realms of life and afterlife, as our hero connects with his Portuguese and South African ancestors, and moves through fear to become the man he was meant to be.

In a one-person show that encompasses both broad and immediate personal history, Brown draws out his tale as he gradually constructs a pattern on the floor with white stones. Incorporating storytelling, history, movement, ritual, language and music, he shape shifts in and out of a cast of characters that include the precocious, curious seven-year-old girl he once was and the joyful, prophesying, matter-of-fact South African ancestor he’s about to meet.

Becoming a bridge between past and present, female and male, he connects with the spirit world through dreams and visions—and gradually the messages become clear as the little girl who experiences strange dreams and headaches, and is shunned in the schoolyard, grows up and comes to learn that there’s nothing medically wrong with her. She is a receiver, a prophecy made flesh, a shape shifter.

In a world where white men divided up a continent they claimed as their own, and forced their alphabet onto environment-based African dialects—and, later, Western medicine onto African descendants—how does our hero reconcile his connections to both the colonized and the colonizer? And, through the pain of the struggle for true identity, and the ancestral pain of apartheid and displacement, he comes to realize the complex—and even contradictory—aspects of identity and experience that have combined to create him.

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Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

Brown, who recently wrote for/performed in the RARE Theatre/Soulpepper production Welcome to my Underworld, is a compelling and entertaining storyteller. Engaging, bold, unashamed and vulnerable, he invites us along on his journey—part autobiography, part personal mythology, part history lesson, part supernatural revelation—as he connects with his roots and finds his true rhythm. From the child-like playfulness of a little girl to the wry-witted wisdom of an elder, the fear, confusion, joy and humour Brown expresses throughout resonate in a deeply profound, intimate way. And I know I wasn’t the only one in tears at the end.

11:11 continues in the Incubator at the Theatre Centre until June 1, with performances on:

Tuesday, May 28 – 6:00PM
Wednesday, May 29 – 9:00PM
Thursday, May 30 – 6:00PM
Friday, May 31 – 9:00PM
Saturday, June 1 – 6:00PM

Tickets available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988.

Inside the brilliant mind of the man behind the message, silenced by stroke in the mercurial, theatrical, moving The Message

R.H. Thomson. Set designed by Camellia Koo. Costumes designed by Charlotte Dean. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Video design by Carla Ritchie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Tarragon Theatre takes us into the brilliant, lighting-fast mind of professor turned internationally hailed pop star prophet Marshall McLuhan with its mercurial, theatrical and moving world premiere of Jason Sherman’s The Message, directed by Richard Rose, with assistant director Taryn Jorgenson. Silenced by a stroke as he struggles to reconcile his life’s work communicating ideas and warnings about the impact of our modern world on our bodies and souls, McLuhan’s mind replays the events, ideas and memories of those closest to him.

The pre-show soundtrack (sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne) takes us back in time, with snatches of Coke commercial jingles and beloved TV theme songs from the 60s, among others; then the first scene throws us into darkness—forcing us to temporarily abandon our sight and use our ears. Marshall McLuhan (R. H. Thomson) has had a stroke; the event interrupting his work on his latest, and possibly last, epic tome—a  600-page manuscript already running well behind deadline. And while his physical and cognitive functions gradually return, he’s left unable to speak.

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Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & R.H. Thomson. Set designed by Camellia Koo. Costumes designed by Charlotte Dean. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Video design by Carla Ritchie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

We circle around McLuhan’s mind as snatches of memory, conversations and ideas bubble to the surface. There are raucous pop culture connections with TV (Peter Hutt, in hilariously crass turns as Feigen and Klein) and ad men (Patrick McManus as the slick Gossage). And more intimate, personal interactions with his long-time, devoted assistant Margaret (played with a soft-spoken, intrepid sweetness by Ch’ng Lancaster) and wife Corrine (Orenstein, in a lovely, passionate performance as his fiercely protective, imaginative, loving Texan partner for life) who rally around him during his recovery. A bizarre, surreal trip into his experience with neurosurgery to remove a benign tumor—a procedure that takes ideas from him even as it saves his sight and hearing—is balanced nicely with quiet, contemplative moments with Father Frank, a former student who’s now a priest (a gentle, poetic performance from McManus).

Thomson gives a stellar performance as McLuhan, capturing the essence of a brilliant, quicksilver and playful—if not distracted—mind. It’s no wonder that some people found it hard to keep up with McLuhan; it’s possible he had trouble keeping up with himself at times. The ideas flow quickly and constantly, but closest to his heart and soul are language, literature, religion, and the theories and questions about the evolution of the modern world—and how modern urban living in the electronic age are impacting our bodies, minds and even our very souls. And while the public may be looking to him for answers, he knows that one can only keep asking the questions. Thomson navigates the range of McLuhan’s character with cerebral, sharp-witted, punny precision. And as he navigates the aftermath of the stroke—frustrated and conflicted, wondering what it all means—we watch in awe, this luminous mind still hard at work, with the heartbreaking realization that it can no longer communicate its crucial thoughts.

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Peter Hutt, R.H. Thomson, Sarah Orenstein & Patrick McManus. Set designed by Camellia Koo. Costumes designed by Charlotte Dean. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Video design by Carla Ritchie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Camellia Koo’s practical and whimsical multimedia set design combines nicely with Carla Ritchie’s video design (set up on in a grid of nine TV screens upstage that also serve as peep holes for the actors—reminiscent of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In). These are highlighted nicely by Rebecca Picherack’s lighting design, which shifts our perceptions of the action with darkness, spotlight and general wash—forcing us to hone our senses. And shouts to costume designer Charlotte Dean for the fab 60s threads, nicely tailored to reveal each character.

As I left the theatre last night, I couldn’t help but wonder what McLuhan would’ve made of the ever-evolving digital age and social media platforms—where letters and phone calls have been largely replaced by email, text and DM. As with other evolving modern conveniences that are meant to bring people and ideas together, we must all be mindful of how and why we use specific media. And maybe put the devices down once in a while, look into each other’s eyes and speak face to face for a change.

The Message continues in the Tarragon Mainspace until December 16. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827. Go see this.