Annelisa Leinbach

Where are there millers and plowmen? Or rather, when were there millers and plowmen? Did villages like the one in the play exist in the American South in the 17th or 18th century? I don’t think it matters at all — I think “Knives in Hens” is set in a kind of primordial human community. This play, I think, is mythic, and maybe symbolic. If I were a theater historian the “isms” would flow. We’ll try this: It was effective.

I’m writing this review ten minutes after the play’s finish, and I’m still carrying an emotional charge, the kind which a newspaper review is not the ideal conduit for transmitting.

Three characters. A white strip six feet wide, the length of the Yale Cabaret. A white bed on either side, in front of the silhouette of a white farmhouse. One woman — whose character is named “Young Woman,” but who is only ever called “Woman”(Elizabeth Stahlmann DRA ’17) — starts in one bed and ends in the other. One belongs to her, or her husband, Pony William, a plowman (Niall Powderly DRA ’16). He is rough in his looks and his demeanor, wears a tight-fitting linen shirt that reveals most of his hairy chest. These are his work clothes, and his work seems to involve horse-care more than anything else.

He often cups Young Woman’s face and neck; it’s a firm embrace, or if not that, a chokehold, and he kisses her often, spanks her, grabs her, smirks. They like to have sex; indeed, there’s not much else for her to do, childless and jobless as she is. They fear God. They hate the miller (Paul Cooper DRA ’16) to whom they must give their harvested wheat; he is rumored to have killed his wife and child. They are simple, libidinous, agricultural. She is ravishingly beautiful. Her face stretches, her brow furrows, with the most compelling urgency.

This is a play about language, and knowledge. Writing. Permanence. Interior worlds being called forth, named, communicated. This is a play about murder, and agency, and gender.

Do I seem overwhelmed?

Plot — more of it. Young Woman is tasked with delivering the wheat to the miller, who is an itinerant worker – he travels between towns, performing his specialist service. He is creepy, but not necessarily more so than her husband. He wears an apron over an undershirt; his pectoral muscles curve out from the sides. He is lanky, has wild blue eyes, gruff in the same way as William, less predictable, smarter. His and Woman’s first meeting is tense — she refuses to enter his house, she tells him he has evil breath, the prospect of rape is imminently real. He ridicules her husband. He ridicules her.

Their second meeting is different: He shows her his pen — a “useless stick” a traveling musician sold to him at the market. She condemns the pen as irreligious — “It’s a devil stick you made” — but then shifts to defense. “Look how much of me there is,” he says, gesturing to his notebook before accusing her of illiteracy. She proves him wrong by writing her name.

On Young Woman’s way between houses, a microphone drops from the ceiling, hanging in the air by a cord, and she speaks into it — to herself, to the audience, to God, or something — searching for the words to describe God’s creation before the microphone is unceremoniously retracted into the ceiling. The thoughts that she learns to articulate in these fleeting performances she tries to express to her plowman husband, who fails to understand, condemns her ideas as irreligious, becomes almost violently aggressive; they have sex. This is the vague trajectory of their conversations.

Everything is white — clothes, ground, bed, skin, house, but not the ink. Young Woman tries, after the name-writing episode, to rid her hands of ink before returning to her husband. But a charm has been cast — she is under the power of something new, and complicated, and dark — and she’s tormented by nightmares of the miller sprinkling black powder throughout her home. Her world’s whiteness is tainted.

She goes to his house to try to reverse the ink-charm, but two things happen: She kisses him, and she falls into a night-long trance of writing. In the morning she discovers what she has written and delivers an epic soliloquy, declaring, “This town has lied. William has lied.” Her pilgrimage toward self-knowledge has begun in earnest.

Things get harder to follow toward the end — there is a rock-pushing ceremony, somehow a rite of passage for the newlyweds. She faints afterwards, in the presence of both men. The plowman espouses his theology — he suspects that God’s glory is not God, as he’s learned in church, but Creation. He proposes that Young Woman’s body parts have been named inadequately, that their beauty makes language futile, that Young Woman seems to him to reveal the glory of God.

It’s a moment of clarity for William — an insightful heresy, that sex and the body are the true sites of revelation. But it must be too late, because Young Woman and the miller kill William, rolling the wedding-rock over him as he urinates outside. The sex they have afterwards constitutes their new shared identity, their awakenedness.

Does literacy compel people to kill their spouses? It’s as if the knowledge the two have tapped into breaks their old faith — in the town’s traditions, in the humble finitude of an unhappy small-town marriage. Tellingly, the miller lives outside of the village; his and the Young Woman’s knowledge turns them into wanderers, outsiders.

Much is made of language, and of names. Once something has a name, the miller says, it has a use. Maybe YOung Woman’s important realization is about her name: that her being called “Woman” is not unrelated to the terribly small sphere of possibility in which she lives, and has sex, and carries bags of flour. Is this the story of her liberation? Is it a retelling of Genesis? A monograph on the terrible power of autonomy?

“Knives in Hens,” written by David Harrower and directed by Jesse Rasmussen DRA ’17, presents its conflict physically: Young Woman is pulled between two poles — white, pastoral, brute simplicity and the inky moral uncertainty of interiority and the written word. I’ve spoiled the ending, but I haven’t done the play itself justice — the wide net this review cast missed plenty of exciting details, not to mention the feeling of watching it. “Knives” runs tonight and Saturday night at the Yale Cabaret.