by Sheldon Gleisser
Saw "Knives in Hens" at Red Herring Theater, and found I had to grapple with it a bit. It's a tough play for the Bachelor's Degree'd likes of me to simply sum up and review.
Written by David Harrower, "Knives in Hens" takes place in a kind of Scottish never-never land. We aren't given a date or time, but for the people in "the Village," subsistence farming and some bit the processing of the farming product is how people make their living.
The Young Woman (Jordan Davis Turner) is married to farmer Pony William (Sean Taylor) who begins the play comparing her to a field. Pony William will in fact largely be known as "The Plowman." You won't have to be overly familiar with Freudian analysis to see why.
The Young Woman is sent to Gilbert Horn (Scott Willis) to get some grain ground into flour. The Young Woman loathes Horn, (from here known mainly as "The Miller") because he is suspected of some dark deeds.
Will these disparate three form a bizarre love triangle? What will be revealed about who they are if they do? And why do the men get names, even if they are soon overwhelmed by nicknames with career references, while then play's one female character remains "Young Woman?"
As "Young Woman," Davis Turner is always completely convincing. A terrific and versatile physical actor, Davis has also been blessed with one of the great expressive faces in Columbus theater, and it serves her well in a character arc going from naive and subservient to...hmmm. Is that giving too much away?
As Pony William, Sean Taylor is master of the world (such as it is) but unable to see the cracks in his mastery. He’s a guy who thinks he can bully, bluster, or con his way through anything, and he can...to a point. You could perhaps chart the script’s dramatic beats by when such points shift. In Taylor's scenes with Jordon, he towers over her, and even though I recognize he's a tall guy and would tower over pretty much anyone, I found I was genuinely afraid for what might happen to her.
Gilbert Horn (the Miller!) is played by Scott Willis, who seems kind of scary in his own way. Did he do the things he was accused of? Playwright Harrower never quite answers the question, and it's a credit to Willis' acting that you like the guy anyway.
All three principal actors have developed Scottish accents that are damn near flawless. I don't want to think about how many times this cast had to watch "Mary, Queen of Scots" to make sure they always said "Har" instead of "Here.”
A piece like this is very dependent on tone, and director Penny Napoli does an excellent job setting one that is appropriately dour, yet doesn’t ignore the play’s fairy tale quality. If this were a film, I might compare Napoli’s work here to that of Jean Cocteau, who did the original 1930 (I think) black & white version of “Beauty and the Beast.” She handles her actors well, and tightly paces the play.
Michael Herring's three tiered set enables multiple transitions from the farm to the Miller's house and back again. It's another triumph of ingenuity over resources in Mr. Herring's set design. The play is similarly aided by Kurt Mueller's lighting, David Edwards' sound, and Brian A. Palmer's authentic looking costumes.
Driving home after watching this play, I found myself thinking about a sort of Remedial Judaism class I took years ago. At one point the Rabbi asked, "after the creation, why did God parade the animals before Adam and have him name them?" After a bit of sheepish (no pun intended) murmuring from the class, he said, "because if you name something you are given power over it."
Then, my mind being the pop culture goulash that it is, I remembered the two Guillermo Del Toro "Hellboy" movies. The title character is a super powered demon from hell raised to work for the good guys. He is incredibly powerful and just about invulnerable. The only way to gain power over him is to learn his real name.
I think "Knives in Hens" is mainly about language and names. How the Young Woman seems confused and flummoxed by words in the first scene, how she later gives words a talismanic significance when she sees them written down, and how her self-respect rises once she begins to see words for what they are, not mysteries, or magic, but tools for communication.
At one point, Young Woman says (sic) “pushing names into what is there the same as when I push my knife into the stomach of a hen.” Is it significant that the character who has no name gets to name the entire play? You gotta buy yourself a ticket to find out. Ah seh drop whatever its is yer doin' oot tha on the Moors and check it oot!
"Knives in Hens” is at the Franklinton Playhouse, 566 West Rich street, from Sept 20-Oct 6, Thurs-Saturday at 8:00 PM, Sunday at 2:00.