BWW Review: Complex Themes and Sharp Dialogue Make for a Cutting Production of KNIVES IN HENS
The examination of existence, language, and self is nothing new within the walls of a theatre, but KNIVES IN HENS manages to expand on all these themes - and then some - using straightforward and highly effective text in this new production of the 1995 David Harrower play.
Presented by Coal Mine Theatre and directed by Leora Morris, the story is as simple as the language used by its characters. A Young Woman (Diana Bentley) is compared to a field by her older husband Pony William (Jim Mezon), and her struggle to understand how she can be like something without being the thing is what sets everything in motion. From this point on, she begins to examine the world around her on a self-imposed mission to find the words for her senses.
On an errand for her husband, she meets the local miller Gilbert Horn (Jonathon Young), who's hated by the village despite his being imperative to their survival. He seems to be the first person to encourage her to question the world around her and offers her a pen, sparking a new passion that follows her through the remainder of the play. Young leans into the softer side of the character to great effect, making the miller likeable almost instantly despite the village's harsh predisposition. Even though this Gilbert Horn is primarily a kind, well-learned person, Young has a certain glint in his eye that plays up the "evil" reputation of the miller, although he's more of a charming trickster than a cruel villain.
As the Young Woman's husband, Mezon is a sturdy, solid Pony William. He's rough around the edges - and within those edges, too - but that only makes the poetry of his dialogue that much more pleasantly surprising. William represents the unmoving ideals of a stereotypical God-fearing villager in some far-off pastoral setting and time, which cements him as an antagonist from the beginning; which is, in itself, a statement on existence and personal growth.
Connecting these two men to the story is the Young Woman herself, who's never named out loud, although the first time she holds the miller's pen she writes her name. This is the first and most direct suggestion that she'll find herself in writing, and the follow up to it results in a beautiful piece of prose. To put it as simply as the story's dialogue, Bentley is stellar in this role. Her face brightens with discovery and hardens with misery, and as the character develops we see a wider range of emotions depicted. The returning scene of the Young Woman alone in a field, trying new words in an effort to describe the things around her, is consistently sincere.
Nature - of humans and in regard to the environment - is threaded throughout the narrative in addition to being inescapable in the set design (Kaitlin Hickey, whose lighting takes on a life of its own in the story). The smell of earth comes from the mulch base of the stage, and the large circle carved into the one wall on stage effectively takes on the forms of a sunrise, a mill stone, and a mare giving birth.
KNIVES IN HENS is deceptively complex. The simple story contains several underlying themes - an exploration of female liberation, a review of the effect of religion on a society, an examination of pastoral versus industrial ideas, and the list goes on. Being able to present all of these deep ideas in a way that doesn't pigeon-hole them can't be easy, but this production does well in letting the characters define themselves.
KNIVES IN HENS runs through October 13 at the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://www.todocanada.ca/city/toronto/event/knives-hens/
Photo credit: Dahlia Katz