A Sharp Knives in Hens

Upstream Theater doesn't mince words with Knives in Hens.

It's been less than two years since Upstream Theater debuted in St. Louis, yet already it has established itself as the most innovative company in town. Upstream stages two plays per year, and each production receives loving care — with the result that the entire experience becomes a collaboration in synchronicity and sensibility. Lots of theatergoers like to save their playbills. But when's the last time you felt an urge to keep your ticket stub? You do at Upstream, because even the tickets are aesthetic. This painstakingly methodical, handcrafted attention to detail from a collective of artisans results in unique theatrical encounters.

Unique and challenging, because Upstream expects as much from its audience as it demands of itself. The current offering, Knives in Hens by David Harrower, is an odd and unconventional piece. Since its premiere in Scotland twelve years ago, the play has been staged worldwide and hailed as a modern classic. At its most facile (though it is never that), the story concerns the education and liberation of a young woman (we know that's what she is, because the playbill lists her as Young Woman). At the outset the woman (Magan Wiles) seems to be contentedly married to Pony William (Christopher Hickey), the village plowman. Pony is also either a horse whisperer or else he's horsing around with his stallions.

Pony's precise hobby is but one of many things that remains elusive in this cryptic tale. It's when the uneducated young woman is forced to deal with Gilbert Horn, the taunting local miller (Peter Mayer), that she grows wise beyond her experience. By night's end she attains the kind of self-awareness that got Eve tossed out of the Garden of Eden. And I think we're supposed to assume that this child-woman is all the better for it.

Knives out: Upstream stages yet another intelligent, affecting production.
Knives out: Upstream stages yet another intelligent, affecting production.

Perhaps because the playwright is Scottish, while reaching for a connective lifeline to this enigmatic play I recalled the remarkable interlude in Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps when, after having been falsely accused of murder, Robert Donat takes refuge in the remote moors of Scotland with the loutish crofter and his sensitive wife. While both situations pose the dynamic for a volatile triangle, the difference is that here we don't know where or when we are. We don't know if this twilight-zone universe is primitive or futuristic. Sometimes the dialogue is crystal clear; at other times it lapses into self-conscious gobbledygook.

Surely the stylized prose-poetry is at the core of the play, yet it's almost incidental to the virtues of this Upstream rendering. Here the visuals so dominate the verbal that what remains blazoned on my memory is the strange sense of having watched a movie live onstage.

As directed with a tensile strength by Philip Boehm, the intermissionless story is edited into long shots (the churning mill wheel at the far end of the theater, the striking introduction of Mayer sprawled out on distant platforms like an ass-kicking version of Heidi's grandfather), medium shots (Gilbert's office) and close-ups (Pony's farm). There are fades-to-black and even a sense of live dissolves.

A popular adage suggests that plays are about words and movies are about images. Several of these visual images surprise and even stun. Some of these visuals should not be mentioned so that they can retain their surprise. But for one, the moment when the plowman ravishes his wife, swaying her back and forth as if she's a pendulum at the bottom of a grandfather clock, will not soon be forgotten.

All three players are strong and true. The wide-eyed Wiles effectively begins the evening as Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, then morphs into Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, which is not as distant a journey as it might seem. But just as one would be hard-pressed to critique actors in a medieval morality play, it's difficult to be specific here. This is a primal story, elemental and mystical, about fear and hate, innocence and evil — not about character and performance.

A modern classic? I'm not even quite sure what I saw. But isn't it an invigorating change to occasionally leave the theater perplexed rather than pacified?

 
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