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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SummerWorks: Relationship wisdom from the mouths of babes in the playful, surprising & moving CHILD-ISH

Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Sunny Drake and the CHILD-ISH Collective present a work-in-progress presentation of CHILD-ISH, written by Drake, and directed by Alan Dilworth and associate director Katrina Darychuk—and running in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre. Exploring the theme of relationships from various angles, CHILD-ISH is a piece of verbatim theatre created by an intergenerational group of adult and child interviewers, dramaturgs, performers and facilitators—putting the words of children aged five to 11 into the mouths of adults, with hilarious, surprising and moving, as well as playful and wise, results.

Entering with a flourish, the adult ensemble (Walter Borden, Maggie Huculak, Sonny Mills, Zorana Sadiq and Itir Arditi) acts out interview chats and scenes on relationships—love, consent, old age, losing a loved one and bullying—based on the kids’ shared thoughts, ideas, stories and feelings, with subject matter projected upstage as surtitles. Playful, wise and surprising, the kids express—via the adults—flexible and innovative ideas about marriage and family units (e.g., if you were allowed to marry more than one person, it would make the division of household and outside labour more efficient). Thoughts about love, kissing and consent are savvy, matter of fact and exploratory—and fearlessly so. One kid mentioned that they’re non-binary, stating a preference for they/them pronouns; and how, while misgendering bugs them, they make allowances for people to get used to it.

The dialogue is frank, open and surprisingly insightful—and the thoughts and ideas emerge as playfully as in any physical game. Hilarity often ensues in the juxtaposition of adults speaking the words of children, but then once in a while, something catches your attention that makes a lot of sense. And you may find yourself wishing that adults could think and be more like kids sometimes. In contrast, the harassment and bullying experiences/responses are heartbreaking as you recognize that, even though adults are relating them, these thoughts and feelings are coming from kids.

Joined by three kids at the end (I’m guessing these are young facilitators Sadie Kopyto Primack, Elora Gerson and Owen Ross), the actor/facilitator group movement piece is both beautiful and moving. Following this, the audience is invited to join in reading the Kidifesto, also projected upstage. It was during these moments that I was moved to tears.

Joyful, curious, authentic and open—in laughter, pain and uncertainty—we could all learn a lesson or two from the wisdom of kids in CHILD-ISH and in our everyday lives.

With shouts to Director of Child Engagement Jessica Greenberg; young dramaturgs Eponine Lee, Sumayya Iman Malik and Ozzy Rae Horvath; adult dramaturg Brian Quirt; and young co-interviewer Mia McGrinder; as well as the small army of child collaborators, consultants, development partners and champions who made this presentation possible. I look forward to seeing where this goes next.

Child-ish has one more performance in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre: August 14 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it’s a very short three-show run and last night’s performance was sold out, so advance booking is a must.

Toronto Fringe: Stepping into the mind of a Ulysses character in the playful, bawdy, theatrical Molly Bloom

Lena Maripuu, Jenna-Lee Hyde, Reanne Spitzer & Annie Tuma. Photo by Jocelyn Adema.

 

Forth Gorgon Theatre takes us into the mind of Molly Bloom in Jocelyn Adema’s playful, bawdy, theatrical adaptation of the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses in Molly Bloom, directed by Adema and running in the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Four actors play various aspects of Molly’s psyche (Jenna-Lee Hyde, Lena Maripuu, Reanne Spitzer and Annie Tuma) as she tosses and turns, her brain electric with tumultuous thoughts and memories at 3 a.m. A sexually-charged being, married to Leopold for 16 years, Molly hasn’t had sex with her husband since the death of their son 11 years ago. The internal monologue is externalized through dialogue, monologue, synchronized and individual movement, and vocals in unison and harmony; the rapid-fire discussions and musings range from gossip, love, lovers, sex, birth, suspicion, infidelity and attraction. Memories of her new-found sexual power: the relishing of kisses, the union of bodies, her blossoming breasts, and the hard and soft dichotomy of the penis; and her afternoon lover Hugh. These contrasted with her disdain of and trash-talking about men’s sexual appetites and failings; and suspicions of Leopold’s infidelity.

The fabulous foursome ensemble is a delight. Performing with exuberance (and I saw a 10 p.m. show), playfulness and sharp wit—going from delicious gossip to suspicious rage and sensuous memory—all rounded with a sharp, sardonic, bawdy sense of humour and a slumber party atmosphere. Each actor highlights an aspect of Molly’s personality: Hyde’s ferocity, Maripuu’s pragmatism, Spitzer’s playfulness and Tuma’s sardonic edge—all played out with commitment, good humour, mischief and youthful energy. The action is nicely complemented by Beatriz Arevalo’s set and costume design; the sensuous quality of the bed, covered with a mountain of multi-coloured pillows, surrounded by light translucent curtains, contrast with the more chaste pajamas. And the pre-show thunderstorm soundtrack mirrors the torrential storm and power of Molly’s thoughts and feelings, a peek into the action to come.

Don’t worry if you haven’t read Ulysses (I haven’t); the program provides descriptions of the characters Molly references, along with a brief history of her life.

Molly Bloom continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 13; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.