While the script describes the setting as simply a “rural place,” British and European productions apparently have set the play in medieval times. It is definitely pre-industrial as the farmers still need to have their grains ground at a mill and no one has yet seen a pen. Director Paul Takacs, who has staged the equally challenging Dark Vanilla Jungle by Philip Ridley in New York, has reset the play on the American frontier and made use of a multicultural cast. This grounds the play somewhat and makes it easier for Americans to identify with it, but it remains a difficult, challenging play due to its poetic language and its lack of specificity.
An unnamed “Young Woman” has recently married Pony William, a plowman, an older man of elemental needs who makes an adequate living. He seems to want sex every night when he doesn’t sleep in the barn with his horses, and orders her around like she was his servant. Naïve and uneducated, Young Woman does not have the words she wants to express things nor does she understand everything William says. When he compares her to a field and the moon to cheese, she has never heard of simile before. When he sends her to the miller, Gilbert Horn, to have their grain ground, she is afraid to go as the miller is considered the devil in their community as he reads books and may or may not have killed his wife and unborn child.
However, the taciturn, refined Horn who wears glasses in this production is nothing like we have been led to believe. Although she is afraid of his reputation, she comes to realize that he has the knowledge that she so desperately seeks. He introduces her to writing and reveals that he keeps a journal which astounds her. Eventually, she and her husband both return to the miller’s and a rivalry ensues which leads to the play’s denouement. In the course of her journey, Young Woman takes possession of her life and begins to discover the things she wants to know. Other than hearing Young Woman’s religious ideas and her questions about the world, we don’t learn much else about the characters or their environment.
This triangle suggests an Edenic situation with the miller as the snake who offers the forbidden enlightment. In fact, though it’s not in the script, William and Young Woman share an apple. The play has also been seen as a feminist tract depicting how the heroine is liberated through language and education. As written by Harrower, the play is open to multiple interpretations. The play also includes two sexual pas de deux created by Yasmine Lee which are not mentioned in the text. While making the play more dramatic, they also serve to add to the running time.
Like the text, Takacs’ production has been stripped down to its basics. Steven C. Kemp’s setting is simply the wooden slatted wall of a cabin, with only a pan for water and sacks of grain which the couple also uses for their bed. The most effective part of Dante Olivia Smith’s lighting is the backlight seen behind the slats which suggests the outside world. The cast wear the same costumes designed by Sydney Gallas throughout suggesting that they own few clothes.
Under Takacs’ equally spare and austere direction, the three-member cast does their best with roles that do not give them much to go on. As Young Woman, Robyn Kerr is believably wide-eyed and innocent, growing and developing as we watch. Shane Taylor makes Pony William a brutal, commanding presence, not only used to getting his way but unable to deal with criticism. Devin E. Haqq makes Gilbert Horn his diametric opposite, sensitive, refined, educated, introspective. The interactions between the characters have dramatic force but so much is left up to the viewer’s imagination that it is difficult to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle.
David Harrower’s Knives in Hens is a challenging drama as both a play of language and word games and one in which very little information is given to the audience. As unlike the acclaimed Blackbird as possible except that it also has a series of two-person confrontations, Knives in Hens is only for those who are willing to experience an obscure drama which does not give up all its secrets on a first viewing. Director Paul Takacs’ attempt to ground the play in the American frontier may actually obscure the play’s real message.
Knives in Hens (through November 12, 2017)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission