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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Love, possession & sacrifice in Gesher Theatre’s mystical, compelling The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds

Company, with Israel (Sasha) Demidov (bottom left) & Efrat Ben-Tzur (top centre). Set design by Simon Pastukh. Costume design by Stephanie Graurogkayte. Lighting design by Igor Kapustin. Photo by Daniel Kaminski.

 

Show One Productions presents the North American premiere of Gesher Theatre’s production of The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds, inspired by S. Ansky and adapted by Roy Chen. Directed by Gesher Theatre founder/AD Yevgeny Arye, The Dybbuk is in Toronto for a two-performance run at the Elgin Theatre. Performed in Hebrew with English and Russian surtitles, The Dybbuk is a remarkable combination of comedy and tragedy, mysticism and pragmatism; love turns to possession and the world of these people—living and dead—will never be the same.

When we first meet Khanan (Israel [Sasha] Demidov), he is up on the roof of the synagogue praying alone while the other men pray together below; it is here, during his practice of Kabbalah that he reaches out to the Almighty and confesses his love for childhood friend Leah (Efrat Ben-Tzur). But when Leah’s wealthy merchant father Sender (Doron Tavori) bursts into the synagogue with news, we learn that she has been promised to Menashe (Ori Yaniv), the son of another rich man. Khanan disputes the match and asks for Leah’s hand, a request that is met with rebuke and derision. An orphan misfit, labelled “gimp” and crazy by the other men, Khanan is roughly thrown out of the synagogue.

With his dying breath, Khanan asks the Almighty for forgiveness, but to not be separated from Leah. The dead of the community, including the ghost of Leah’s mother Hanna (Neta Shpigelman) take him in to their fold. Determined to marry Leah, Khanan hatches a plan to disrupt the wedding by possessing Leah as a dybbuk (a restless spirit). Recognizing the spirit that’s possessed her, Leah is torn by her love for Khanan and the impossible torment of being with him under these conditions. When her grandmother Frieda’s (Fira Kanter) traditional remedies fail, the family takes her to Rabbi Azriel (Gilad Kletter) for an exorcism. Revelations and dark family secrets emerge during the battle for Leah’s soul. In the end, both Leah and Khanan realize they can’t be together like this, in this in between world, and they both have some difficult choices to make.

Stunning design and riveting performances make for a compelling journey into this world of the living and the dead—and the space in between. The tight staging incorporates traditional ritual, daily life and the thin veil that separates the living from the dead—infused with an air of supernatural mystery, playfulness and even a bit of irreverence. The stage (set design by Simon Pastukh and lighting design by Igor Kapustin) is dominated by a luminous orb of a moon upstage right and a transparent box-like playing area stage left, highlighting the thin boundary between this life and the next. The accompanying music (Avi Benjamin) and sound design (Michael Vaisburd) complement the otherworldly environment, with snatches of opera; haunting biblical trumpet bursts; and the warm familiar tunes of home from the fiddler (Boris Portnoy). The costuming (Stephanie Graurogkayte) combines early 1900s period apparel with traditional Jewish ceremonial garments; and the dead are differentiated from the living by their white faces, the white makeup ritualistically applied to the newly dead by one of the veteran women dead.

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Efrat Ben-Tzur & Israel (Sasha) Demidov. Set design by Simon Pastukh. Costume design by Stephanie Graurogkayte. Lighting design by Igor Kapustin. Photo by Daniel Kaminski.

Stand-out performances from Demidov and Ben-Tzur, who have lovely chemistry as the conflicted Khanan and Leah. Longing to connect with the Almighty, Khanan also has a deep, earthly desire for Leah; and Leah, viewed as an old maid, struggles with doing what her family expects of her and the call of her own heart—and both must come to terms with the difference between love and possession. Tavori is both menacing and comical as the gravel-voiced, proud and brutish Sender. Try as Sender might to tell the world—and himself—that he only wants what’s best for his only daughter, even he must admit that he had ulterior motives for thwarting the match between Khanan and Leah. Kanter gives Frieda, Leah’s grandmother, a feisty pragmatic edge; deeply ensconced in the old ways, peppered with superstition and a belief in magic, Frieda is the guiding female hand in Leah’s life—preparing her for marriage and ultimately the most broken-hearted as revelations emerge during the exorcism.

Shpigelman is a heart-wrenching picture of love and strength as Hanna’s ghost; heartbroken at having died so young and leaving Leah without a mother, Hanna watches and protects from beyond—her daughter’s possession giving them a brief chance to connect across worlds. And Alexander Senderovich and Natasha Manor supply some much needed comic relief as the ghosts of the Watchmaker Baruch and his wife Rochelle.

 

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Yevgeny Terletzky, Lilian Ruth, Neta Shpigelman, Natasha Manor & Alexander Senderovich. Set design by Simon Pastukh. Costume design by Stephanie Graurogkayte. Lighting design by Igor Kapustin. Photo by Daniel Kaminski.

Going from her father’s house to her husband’s house, a woman in this time and place has little agency over her own life and body; and deeply professed love can easily turn to selfish possession. To varying degrees, this power dynamic between men and women still exists today—and in the face of overwhelming odds, women are still fighting and making hard choices in order to take control of their own future.

 

The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds has one more performance: today (Sun, Sept 30) at 3 p.m. Advance tickets available online at Ticketmaster.ca (Search by “Dybbuk”) or by calling 1-855-599-9090.

Check out the trailer: