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 www.theatreexile.org