Sunday, October 29, 2017

96 (2017-2018): Review: KNIVES IN HENS (seen October 24, 2017)

“Nothing to Cluck About”

Scottish playwright David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, first staged in 1995, at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, is a poetic love triangle set in a pre-industrial rural village; it’s received multiple international productions in many languages, including a reportedly brilliant one this past summer directed by Yael Farber at London’s Donmar Warehouse.

Robyn Kerr, Shane Taylor. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Strongly admired by many, said to be the most produced Scottish play ever apart from Peter Pan, and often called a modern classic, it’s never been done professionally in New York until now. That doesn’t mean New York hasn’t seen it at all. Sarah Benson, the artistic director at the Soho Rep, directed it as her MFA thesis production at Brooklyn College, where I not only saw it in 2003 but can still recall the unusual setting she employed.
Shane Taylor, Robin Kerr. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The New York premiere, in the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters, presented by The Shop, is being given an American twist by director Paul Takacs, who has cast its three roles with actors of color and set the action in what, apart from some 20th-century clothes, could be taken as the postbellum, sharecropper South. Working with choreographer Yasmine Lee, Takacs has crafted a production combining elements of theatricalism and naturalism, but the result is drearily sluggish, uninvolving, and not particularly enlightening. There’s no way a viewing of this production would inspire thoughts of a “modern classic.”
Robyn Kerr, Devin E. Haqq. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The fable-like characters are peasants, the Young Woman (Robyn Kerr), her plowman husband, Pony William (Shane Taylor), and the village miller, Gilbert Horn (Devin E. Haqq). Their story moves between the home and stable of the Young Woman and William and the home of the miller, to whom the locals bring their grain to be ground into flour. For his services, he’s paid with a portion of the flour although he’s suspected of taking more than his share. Thus the Woman’s insistence that he’s evil, and a subtext suggesting a shift toward industrialization that capitalizes on the work of others.

The rough-edged, illiterate William is contrasted with Gilbert, who not only reads books but can write. The uneducated Woman finds herself intrigued by the knowledge Gilbert represents, and the power she feels from acquiring such knowledge, represented not only by her passion for naming things in the world around her, but in understanding what lies beyond their physical existence. (A preoccupation with God pervades the dialogue.)
Robyn Kerr, Devin E. Haqq. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
With knowledge, she gains power, which can also be dangerous. My plus-one was quick to note the story of Eve and the apple. Despite the antipathy the Woman, like the other peasants, feels toward the miller, she gets more than her grain ground by him, with unfortunate results for Pony William.
Devin E Haqq, Shane Taylor, Robin Kerr. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The audience sits on bleachers only inches from the shallow set, designed by Steven C. Kemp, which is a mere eight feet or so deep and backed by a wall of horizontal wooden planking, with two barely visible planked doors set into it. The miller’s stone grinding wheel, present in some productions, is implied at one striking moment by a wall pattern made visible with the help of Dante Olivia Smith’s exquisite lighting.
Robyn Kerr, Shane Taylor. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Little in the production plumbs the potential depths of Harrower’s play. The actors, dressed in scruffy garments of indeterminate vintage by Sydney Gallas, muffle the poetic starkness of the language and fail to do more than communicate the basic narrative. The men, both with shaved heads and well-trimmed beards, resemble each other more than they differ.

One can argue whether the historical circumstances surrounding rural blacks in a postbellum Southern world (definitely not preindustrial) are too well known to apply to Knives in Hens but, even if one overlooks the anachronisms, the choice doesn’t do much to illuminate the drama. Plays like this are usually better when unencumbered by association with any particular time and place.
Shane Taylor, Robyn Kerr. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Takacs has contrived several highly theatrical moments but they do little to wake the play’s inner power or clarify its various obscurities. Consider, for example, the choreographed sexual pas de deux between the Woman and the plowman that opens the play (another one comes toward the end), backed by sound designer Toby Jaguar Algya’s music; it’s overlong, not especially original, pretty rather than erotic, and extraneous, since the dialogue following orgasm suggests they’ve been chatting, not making love: “I’m not a field. How’m I a field? What’s a field? Flat. Wet. Black with rain. I’m no field,” she says. “Never said that,” he replies. First words spoken after coitus? I think not.
Devin E. Haqq, Robyn Kerr. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Knives in Hens is the kind of play whose ambiguities allow it to assume multiple interpretations in performance. Regardless of which is chosen, its first responsibility must be to engage, not bore. This production is a bore.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through November 12