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.

 

The bittersweet rhythms of life in the wistful, nostalgic, entertaining Dancing at Lughnasa

Opening its 2018-19 season at Alumnae Theatre last night, the Toronto Irish Players take us to 1936 Donegal, and the rural home of the Mundy family as they struggle with life, love and changing times, in their wistful, nostalgic and entertaining production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, directed by David Eden.

A bittersweet memory play, we’re hosted by narrator Michael (Enda Reilly), who was raised by his single mother, spirited, irreverent Christina (Lauren McGinty) and her four sisters. Their parents dead, the eldest resident sibling and local school teacher, the prim and proper Kate (Erin Jones) is the de facto matriarch; family clown Maggie (Rebecca De La Cour) looks after the small family farm; and the quiet Agnes (Donna O’Regan) and simple-minded Rose (Áine Donnelly) earn money by knitting gloves.

The return of their brother Father Jack (Ian McGarrett), sent home from his mission in Uganda by his superiors, both causes and coincides with significant changes in their lives and position in their home village of Ballybeg—especially lending truth to the rumour that Jack was dismissed for “going native” and adapting, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a too familiar and accepting attitude of local custom and ritual. Industrialization is catching up with rural Ireland, and factory-made goods are putting handwork at risk. Ongoing, if not sporadic, visits from Michael’s father Gerry (Sean Gilheany), a Welsh wanderer turned gramophone salesman, give the family—especially Christina and Michael—rare and welcome glimpses of the possibility of hope for something better; and a brief respite from the dullness of their workaday lives and the stresses of making ends meet during the Depression.

The family’s individual and collective history is both merry and melancholy; and lives are forever changed by forces largely beyond their control. And while Michael acknowledges the hard times of struggle, sacrifice and loss, he takes heart from the good times the family shared together—the love, laughter and dancing around the Marconi wireless. The rhythms of life, love and changing times.

Lovely work from the cast in creating this intimate family story. Reilly’s Michael makes for an affable and animated host; and he’s especially adept at conjuring the wide-eyed, precocious and imaginative child Michael. De La Cour is a treat as the feisty jokester Maggie; using humour to cheer and diffuse tension, her glass-half-full perspective is also crucial to her own survival. O’Regan and Donnelly have a beautiful rapport as the BFF sisters, the unassuming, protective Agnes and the child-like, naive Rose, who both come to show there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to notions of romance. McGinty gives a well-rounded performance as the conflicted young mother Christina; the family beauty, and raising the love child of a man she hardly ever sees, Christina’s youth has been interrupted by the more pragmatic concerns of a single mother—and in a time and place that frowned upon women like her. In classic Irish matriarch fashion, Jones’s Kate says as much with a look or gesture as she does with a word; having missed on romance herself, Kate’s stern disposition also a masks a broken heart.

McGarrett gives a poignant performance as the sisters’ brother Father Jack; once the golden boy of the family and the village, Jack has returned, frail and barely recognizable, and hardly knowing his own hometown. And Gilheany gives a charming turn as Gerry; a man of the road who loves to love, Gerry means well, but has trouble with the follow-up.

With shouts to the design team for their evocative work in transporting us to this nostalgic Depression-era world of memory and family in rural Donegal, Ireland: Chandos Ross (set), Livia Pravato (costumes), Karlos Griffith (lighting) and Dan Schaumann (sound).

Dancing at Lughnasa continues on the Alumnae Theatre Mainstage until November 3; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-440-2888. Keep up with The Irish Players on Facebook and Twitter.