God, Work and Sex Dominate Theatre Exile's "Knives in Hens"

There's a good bet that it's unlike any show you've ever seen.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 22, 2012

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In her director’s notes for Theatre Exile’s latest production, Brenna Geffers observes that playwright David Harrower’s Knives in Hens “has been unlike any other show I have ever worked on.” And it’s a good bet that Geffers’ staging of Knives is unlike any show you’ve ever seen.

Knives grew out of a longer play that Harrower worked on set in Scotland’s rugged lowlands. The original work included a storyteller who relates a tale about a ploughman’s wife and her journey to a nearby mill. Knives brings the storyteller’s tale to life in jarring fashion.

Set sometime in the distant pre-industrial past, Harrower’s nervy, 70-minute play concerns three people in a secluded rural village. The exact date is unspecified, but it is an age before the existence of luxury or even the simplest comforts. Without any modern conveniences to distract them, the villagers’ lives revolve around God, work and sex.

A poetic, metaphorically rich play, Knives lends itself to a wide variety of different approaches. In Geffers’ hands, Knives is a coming-of-age story about a young woman’s (Emilie Krause) search for identity.

“Woman” is what her husband, William (the excellent Jered McLenigan) calls her—and with good reason. To him she has no identity beyond her gender. Everything she does, everything she is, relates to her sex. William, a ploughman in the village, spends his days tending to the all-important horses. His woman seemingly does everything else.

One day, he orders her to a nearby mill for grain. Unlike the farmers in the village, the miller Gilbert (Ross Beschler in an effectively complex portrayal) is akin to a businessman in this sleepy town and thus treated as an outsider. However, after some initial wariness, a relationship develops between Gilbert and William’s wife.

Knives is Harrower’s first play, but unlike many novice playwrights he is not struggling to find his voice. Poetic, primitive and drawing on primal forces, Harrower’s script is like a sorcerer’s spell that can be both bewitching and bewildering.

One of the problems with contemporary theater is that new plays go through an overly long gestation period before they ever see a stage. The result is that, after countless workshops and readings, many plays can seem overly calculated. In contrast, Harrower’s script feels as rough and unpolished as the people whose lives it depicts. Unconcerned with historical accuracy or a carefully crafted message, the play seems to spring directly from Harrower’s imagination onto Exile’s stage, where it is brought to life with its rawness fully intact.

Directed with considerable gusto by Geffers, Exile’s production doesn’t just show us the world conjured by Harrower, it puts us deep inside it.

Thom Weaver’s environmentally rich scenic design integrates the audience within the village and the woods that surround it. Light shoots through the barn’s wooden slats and makes silhouettes out of the tree’s barren limbs. Nothing is fully illuminated; instead, the flickering, indirect light creates a world of shadows and superstitions.

The totality of the production’s design (which includes Christopher Colucci’s and Daniel Perelstein’s seductive sound design and original musical) has an intoxicating, almost hypnotic effect. Unencumbered by the usual rules of theater that define the relationship between the audience and the stage, Exile’s Knives is so far removed from our common, everyday lives that at times it’s like being lost and disorientated in a foreign land where everything suddenly seems extraordinary.

Through March 4. $18-$32. Studio X, 1340 South St. 215.218.4022. theatreexile.org

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