by Richard Sanford
Red Herring continues its mission of bringing less-performed (in Columbus) classics to our stages with a crackling, brutal production of David Harrower’s debut Knives in Hens, directed by Penny Napoli.
This tight, hundred-minute (no intermission) play centers on a rural village in a pre-industrial but post-printing press time. An unnamed young woman (Jordan Davis), married to the village plowman Pony William (Sean Taylor), finds herself drawn to the miller, Gilbert Horn (Scott Willis).
Davis’ young woman’s innate curiosity and wit runs her up against a society (even in her own marital bed) that would rather she stay where she is. That lust for knowing – wanting to name everything and find its true definition, its true heart – draws up groundswells of strength but also destruction, a painful casting-off of heavy, dead skin.
Davis’ vigorous, searing portrayal of this metamorphosis knocked the wind out of my lungs. I left convinced the character, nameless from the program until the last moments of the play, had a name of her own when her life continued after the curtain call. Taylor takes the classic trope of the town stud, more in tune with his horses (to be fair, vital to the field’s operation) than his own wife, and imbues it with a rare wit, charm, and intense menace. Taylor goes zero-to-100 as called for, but he just as easily shifts to subtlety and quiet, with dazzling, quicksilver grace.
Willis takes his character from broken outsider and observer to an active participant in his own life. His entrance into the young woman’s life is charged before they even speak to one another. He and Davis dance in that intoxicating, terrifying fire with a physical glee that makes the darkness all around them glint like knives. Their lust for each other extends their lust for the world and their dissatisfaction, and the characters know it.
Harrower’s language depends on space and subtext. Napoli’s direction plays with the coiled tension of these actors’ bodies and the contrast between expansive bleakness and bitter claustrophobia. Michael Garrett Herring’s mammoth and sparse set provides the perfect backdrop for these opposing energies. She and her exceptional cast massage the beating heart of what could be a dark Scottish haiku.
Knives in Hens is a powerful, at times uncomfortable watch, executed brilliantly.
Knives in Hens runs through October 6 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit redherring.info.