Review: ‘Knives in Hens,’ a Wondrous Drama of the Lust for Language

For “Knives” is about the liberation that comes in creating language that matches perception. Or partly that. Those with a socio-economic bent might see it as a parable of the transition from rural to industrial society, while religious scholars could easily interpret it as a reimagining of the Garden of Eden myth.

A feminist reading makes sense, too. And even fans of the fatal romantic triangles of film noir and James M. Cain novels will find substance to savor here.

But for anyone whose first love is words, it’s the linguistic aspect of “Knives in Hens” that is so profoundly moving. And if that is your inclination, you’ll likely find your eyes welling whenever the play’s central figure tries out new descriptions for everything around her, growing in confidence as she does so, but always still searching.

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Shane Taylor as Pony William, whose younger wife is captivated by a stranger in David Harrower’s play. Credit Emon Hassan for The New York Times

This character is identified only as Young Woman, and she is played here with a mesmerizing mix of rawness and delicacy by Robyn Kerr. Young Woman is the obedient and dependent wife of an older man (Shane Taylor), a farmer called Pony William for his affinity with horses.

They would appear to inhabit an ancient world. (Mr. Harrower has written that he had 15th-century Scotland in mind.) Their needs are elemental — food, shelter, sex — and at first the Young Woman doesn’t venture far beyond such perimeters.

Yet a seed that will grow subversively is planted in her head in the first conversation we hear between this couple. He has evidently just likened her to a field, which she believes she definitely is not.

“If I’m like a field, I must be a field,” she says with annoyance, as he tries to explain the comparison. But the metaphor — or rather, the very idea of metaphor — lodges in her imagination. And she finds herself increasingly hungry for words that would capture the ineluctable — a puddle that’s clear instead of muddy, the shaking of leaves on a tree — in a landscape where “things change every day.”

On an errand for her husband, she meets the play’s third character, Gilbert Horn (Devin E. Haqq), the miller, who is both necessary to and despised by the crop-tending villagers. Gilbert owns books and, more important, a pen. And when the woman takes that pen in her hands, it seems to acquire a frenzied will of its own.

Mr. Takacs and his movement director, Yasmine Lee, who previously collaborated to haunting effect on Philip Ridley’s “Tender Napalm,” give expressive life to the physical relationships among these characters. There are a few moments in which the staging is confusing in conveying plot twists, although a lyrical ambiguity often feels appropriate.

The production is punctuated by a series of erotic pas de deux that suggest the satisfactions and limitations of sex. They are enacted, fittingly, within the claustrophobic confines of Steven C. Kemp’s rustic wooden set, lighted with hints of a mysterious world beyond by Dante Olivia Smith.

Dressed in rough garments (by Sydney Gallas) that evoke the early days of the Western frontier, the cast speaks in largely uninflected American accents (though Ms. Kerr is identified as Jamaican Scottish in her program biography). The performances are precisely focused without being intensely emotional.

Nonetheless, the sum effect of their talk and actions is deeply emotional. “I have no name for the thing which is in my head,” the Young Woman says at one point, with a wondering greed.

At that moment, which follows her first experience with pen and paper, you know exactly what she means. And what a churning, fertile feeling it is.

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