Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News


By Toby Zinman



By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

First, put your mind to rest about this play’s awful title: nobody is stabbing any chickens.

But that’s about the extent of the reassurance I can offer about Knives in Hens by David Harrower, an unnerving, mysterious play in an intriguing if patience-testing production  at Theatre Exile’s Studio X under Brenna Geffers’s direction.

Young Woman (Emilie Krause) has become the wife of William (Jered McLenigan—the only person in the cast who seems to actually inhabit his character), a ploughman. This is a primitive world—far more primal than anything the word “rural” conjures up; there is food to be eaten, fields to be ploughed, horses to be cared for. And there is sexual desire as they fall upon each other after their simple, exhausting workdays. We’re in some sort of rugged Eden, and it is Eve who will perform the Adamic task of naming things. Once named, there is a world.

“You’re like a field,” the ploughman tells Young Woman. She objects: “I’m not a field.” He replies, “You don’t have to be a thing to be like it.” She cannot grasp the concept of the simile. And the rest of this short play is about her discovery of language and the consequent discovery of self that that brings. We are watching something like the dawn of consciousness—and this will turn out to make Young Woman dangerous.

She is encouraged in her discoveries by the Miller (Ross Beschler) whose literacy – he owns a pen, he owns books—gives him power, and the three find themselves tangled in an erotic triangle.

Harrower’s script invites interpretation, refusing to explain itself, seducing us with possibilities of meaning. The risk with such a play is that it has to deliver, and much in this production is self-sabotaging: too atmospheric for its own good.

The air is so murky, the straw-covered floor so muffling, the lighting so dim that we struggle to understand the dialogue—especially frustrating in a play about language. This lack of clarity is especially true of Krause’s delivery, made worse by the pretentious seating on two sides of the playing area, so that the actors spend much of their time with their backs to us. This is compounded by neck-cramping sightlines.

The wooden set, designed by Thom Weaver and the unsettling sound design by Christopher Colucci and Daniel Perelstein, add to the effects.


 Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1320 S. 13th St. Through March 4. Tickets $18-35.  Information: 215-218-4022 or

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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