Knives in Hens, Strawdog Theatre Company. This smoldering fable by Scotsman David Harrower is as Piano-esque as they come. Young Woman, married to gruff plowman Pony William, slowly falls for miller Gilbert Horn, whose preference for using his head rather than his hands has made him the village pariah, accused of everything from sissyhood to sorcery to murder. Between these burly fellers–who come to represent ability versus ingenuity, sensualism versus enlightenment, chauvinistic bondage versus pre-feminist empowerment–it ain’t hard to guess who’s gonna come out smelling like Harvey Keitel.
Harrower’s rough-hewn dialectic still allows for some surprises. The play’s climactic violence, which ambushes audience as much as victim, seems both excessive and bizarrely free of psychological consequence; but if hard to fathom, the sequence is nevertheless genuinely hypnotic. Similar distancing strategies are applied to the heroine’s evolution as well as the tale’s quiet, disintegrating finish. By turns this approach comes off as horribly stiff and wonderfully concrete–but the impressions seem inextricably bound.
The script’s great virtue is its lushly primitivist language, whose delirious feel director Kimberly Senior has artfully translated as a full-blown waking dream. Nic Dimond’s set and Brendan Healey’s lighting combine to produce dozens of voluptuous, glowing effects, periodically making another spectator of a scrim-shrouded fiddler (Julie Stanton, playing music by Andre Pluess). The cast–Jennifer Avery, Chris Hainsworth, and John Ferrick–do strong, sincere work, but all in all this is a head scratcher whose flatness and passion can’t quite be reconciled.