Considering the emotional and intellectual impact of “Knives In Hens,” it is irresistible to remark that playwright David Harrower is very aptly named. “Harrow,” of course, means to cause distress, so a playwright named Harrower might indeed write distressing or disturbing plays. (I am not the first reviewer to make this observation.) But the curious synchronicity of the playwright’s name and his play does not stop there: a harrow is also a farm implement similar to a plow. As described by Merriam-Webster it is “a cultivating tool set with spikes, teeth, or disks and used primarily for breaking up and smoothing the soil.”
Thus, “to harrow” would be to use spikes or teeth to break up soil for the planting of new seeds. It is an almost perfect metaphor to describe “Knives In Hens.”
Pony William (a ploughman) and his nameless wife (a field-hand) live in a small rural village in an undisclosed place, sometime before the industrial revolution. In the opening scene, he compares her to a field, which she finds confusing. They debate how the language works. She insists she is not a field, and he insists she is “like” a field. She finds the distinction confusing and complains about the problems with language. For instance, she wonders what the little pool of clear water she saw in the field ought to be called. She insists it can’t be a “puddle” because she had previously been told that a little pool of muddy water was a “puddle.” When William insists they are the same thing, she becomes angry. She wants to separately name everything she sees, and he seems satisfied with less.
This is a confusing scene, which establishes little in the way of a story. But, with attentive listening, it is gradually apparent that Pony William is satisfied with his ignorant insensitivity to the depth of the world, and his wife wants more. She wants to name things to understand them, and, as yet, she herself has no name. Their relationship can’t rise above an animal level: she likes his body and he likes hers, although he seems to be more interested in his horses.
The event that moves the plot is a pregnant mare due to give birth, requiring that Pony William remain at home and sending his wife to Gilbert Horn, the miller, with grain to be ground into flour. She goes, and the plot thickens. She hates the miller because she understands that to be the natural order of things. The miller exploits the farmers, and, she’s been warned that he often steals from them by putting his thumb on the scales. When they meet, however, she finds him unexpectedly appealing. Is it possible he doesn’t deserve her hatred? “The village doesn’t understand millers,” he tells her.
The miller has books and declares that he writes every night. He shows her his notebook and pen and she doesn’t know what a pen is. But when he sits down and begins to write about her, she begins to feel seen, and she starts to become more of a person. Language brings her to life. Under Horn’s gaze, she begins to imagine a further horizon than she previously could. She is not pleased. In fact, she seems to hate the miller for this and accuses him of metaphorically “tipping the scales” of her life.
But she is also excited as she begins to have more and more names for things, and the world becomes more alive. She discovers that to name things is to enter into them. “I push names into what is, the same as I push a knife in the stomach of a hen.” She later adds, “This is how I will know God better.”
She and Horn begin to love one another, and it is clear that her life cannot remain what it was.
What then? That is the crux of this fascinating play, the daring (and yes, harrowing) subject of which is the making of a soul. The wife is indeed like a field, in that she is being ploughed and harrowed by language. New seeds are being planted within her, which must surely lead to mysterious developments.
Virginia Blanco as the Young Woman (a field-hand) Tony Ortega as Pony William (a ploughman), and Marce Aponte as Gilbert Horn (a miller), bring emotional life to the play’s difficult language and hermetic plotting, keeping us engaged with the feelings, even when we might be confused as to the facts. Director Robert Estes keeps things well choreographed and visually interesting. Designers Danielle Ferguson (lights), Paula Dodd Aiello (costumes), and—especially—Samuel Raskin (sound) have all done excellent work. The simple but effective set consisting of a few pieces of furniture is credited to Director Estes.
“Knives in Hens” is a puzzling, fascinating, challenging, and rewarding play with an unusual depth of metaphor. It is worth the considerable demands it makes on an audience. Give it your full attention, and you just might experience a bit of soul-making for yourself.
“Knives In Hens” plays at Brooklyn Preserve through September 29. For further information, click here.
Rating: **** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Knives In Hens” by David Harrower. Bay Area Premiere presented by Anton’s Well Theater Company. Director: Robert Estes. Lighting Design: Danielle Ferguson. Sound Design: Samuel Raskin. Scenic Design: Robert Estes. Costumer: Paula Dodd Aiello.
Young Woman (a field-hand): Virginia Blanco. Pony William (a ploughman): Tony Ortega. Gilbert Horn (a miller): Marco Aponte.