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Theatre in Review: Knives in Hens (59E59)/Red Roses, Green Gold (Minetta Lane Theatre)

Top: Shane Taylor, Robin Kerr. Photo: Carol Rosegg. Bottom: Maggie Hollinbeck, Scott Wakefield. Photo: Chad Batka.

By sheer coincidence, this past week has delivered two of the more inscrutable productions of the season. The first question regarding Knives in Hens: Where and when is it taking place? The reviews of a recent London production toss around words like "pre-industrial" and "medieval," yet Paul Takacs' production for The Shop, now at 59E59, is cast with black actors and costumed to suggest the postbellum American South. (All three cast members -- Shane Taylor, Devin E. Haqq, and, especially, Robyn Kerr -- are enormously gifted, and I look forward to seeing them all again, in happier circumstances.) The script only says that the setting is a "rural place."

It begins with the female protagonist, known only as Young Woman -- this is never a good sign -- having an argument with her husband, known as Pony William. And what an argument it is: She, rather put out, says "I'm not a field. How'm I a field? What's a field? Flat. Wet. Black with rain. I'm no field." Pony William points out that he didn't say she is a field; he said she is like a field. This cuts no ice with her: "If I'm like a field must be a field." By way of explaining the difference between simile and metaphor -- not that he uses these terms -- he mentions the fact that the moon isn't really made of cheese. But this only confuses her: "You been up there? The moon's the moon. Why's it like cheese?" It may be the dawn of time and the characters may be dirt-poor peasants, but I guess you can always have a lively argument about semiotics.

If you think the above dialogue is scintillating, you're in luck; if not, fasten your seat belt, because you're in for ninety minutes of inarticulate characters struggling to express inchoate feelings in language stripped of any specificity. (I will draw a veil over the argument about the meaning of the word "puddle.") Pony William -- you won't be surprised to hear -- raises horses; as a result, he spends a lot of time in his barn, although, given the sounds of a female giggling that emerge from it late at night, equine care may not be the only reason. He charges Young Woman with delivering their grain to Gilbert Horn, the miller. She resists the idea, announcing, "They says him killed his wife and the child she was giving birth to. 'N there's disappeared men and women who're cats and goats and monkeys now."

Well, people will talk, but Gilbert, when seen, is nothing like that -- and, in fact, is a good deal more refined than Pony William. (For one thing, he reads books, which appears to be quite the novelty in this community.) Young Woman and Gilbert circle each other, her fear and loathing of him fading when she, at his urging, writes her name. Later, forced to spend the night at his mill, she takes pen to paper: "This is me. I live now. Others have, more will. I was born here because God wanted it. He had me sit in my mother till I could look at all that is his world. Everything I see and know is put in my head by God. Everything he created is there every day, sunrise to sundown, earth to sky...." Wherever we're supposed to be, much of the dialogue feels lifted from a Dick-and-Jane reader. That Kerr makes this speech seem like a great awakening in her character testifies to her obvious gifts.

Apparently, the experience of writing such pensées are liberating because, before long, Young Woman is having an affair with Gilbert -- or, rather, they're dancing. Instead of simulated sex, the production offers movement sequences choreographed by Yasmine Lee, adding another level of off-putting stylization to a production already loaded with them. Nothing good can come of this and indeed, before long, a killing will occur -- although, since it is impossible to care about what happens, it unfolds to little effect. It certainly gives the surviving characters plenty to gab about.

The only reason for paying any attention at all to Knives in Hens is that it is by David Harrower, author of the harrowing Blackbird, seen on Broadway in 2016. In that piece, his insinuating language allows you to fill in the blanks, imagining the entire tortured history of the two characters. Here, everyone is lost in clouds of vagueness. At least Steven Kemp's setting, dominated by a primitive wood wall with plenty of spaces between the planks, makes an impression, as does Dante Olivia Smith's lighting, which, using a bare minimum of units, creates a remarkable variety of time-of-day effects and emotional moods; she also comes up with some really striking backlight effects. Sydney Gallas' costumes and Toby Jaguar Algya's sound design are also solid.

In the introduction to the published version of the script, the critic Mark Fisher writes, "If you think Knives in Hen is mysterious, elliptical and strange, don't worry: you are not alone. Even playwright David Harrower is at a loss to explain where it came from. His memory of writing it is vague; as impossible to capture, perhaps, as a dream. Maybe it took him six weeks. Maybe it took him two months. He can't say." I'm afraid that says it all.

Red Roses, Green Gold is the show that asks the question, Is it possible to make an entertaining jukebox musical out of the songs of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter? To which the answer is, Not under these circumstances. Once again, basic questions plague us: The action is set somewhere named Cumberland, largely, I suppose, because there's a song called "Cumberland Blues." According to the script, it takes place in 1928, although, given Robert Andrew Kovach's set, which suggests an outpost in the Yukon, and Ásta Bennie Hostetter's hippie-chic costumes, the action unfolds in an ill-defined fantasyland.

Early on, the audience is invited to sing along and even get up and dance, if the spirit moves, which suggests that the evening has been conceived as a sing-along for hard-core Deadheads. (Interestingly, even though the score features additional contributions by Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir, and Bill Kreutzmann, the words "Grateful Dead" never appear in the program or press materials.) If they don't mind sitting through one of the most glaringly incompetent musical books in recent times, I guess it's their business.

If you appreciate shows with characters and plots that track, I wouldn't be making any plans for a visit to the Minetta Lane. Michael Norman Mann has grilled up a tasteless flapjack about a semi-reformed con man, his longtime girlfriend, and his two adult children. When it looks as if Jackson, our hero, is going to lose the hotel and mine he won years before in a con game -- and which, in any case, is about to be repossessed by the bank -- all sorts of plot lines are put into motion, none of them amusing, and many of them connected to a tedious backstory involving Jackson's long-running rivalry with another family in town. Among other things, we're expected to sympathize with Jackson's son Mick, who, among other things, robs his father of family heirlooms, runs out on his fiancée, and comes home when he thinks Jackson is dying, in order to cash in on his inheritance. The book explains this by way of saying that Jackson himself wasn't much better in his youth. Those rascals!

The dialogue runs toward gems like this: "You were gonna use dynamite to light a candle. It's no wonder you became a lawyer, no common sense needed to do that." Or this: "That ring you stole was all Pop had to remember Momma by. And you can't put a value on somethin' like that." "Sure you can: forty bucks." The action climaxes in a poker game, which, no one seems to have noticed, is extremely difficult to make interesting onstage. Then again, by this point, that boat has sailed.

The performers, all of whom are gifted musicians, do their best, but all night long they must fight the noise made by the projectors' fans and the motors of the moving lights in the rig. Thus, an already flat, convoluted script is made even less compelling. Apparently, there was a change of sound designers at the last minute, but nobody has been able to render intelligible most of the first-act numbers. A couple of second-act songs -- including "Box of Rain" and "Deal" -- at least get a decent hearing; "Deal" also has some connection to the plot, which is more than you can say about most of the others. Again, everyone involved seems to be hoping that none of this will matter to faithful fans.

The rest of Rachel Klein's production is reasonably slick. Jamie Roderick's lighting blends concert touring techniques with a theatrical approach, although I quickly wearied of the lighting-and-sound cue following every mention of the words "green gold" (that's emeralds to you). Brad Peterson's projections are, for the most part, neatly folded into the lighting and scenic designs, although when two characters go to the movies, the feature -- for reasons passing understanding -- is The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S. Porter's 1903 milestone. Still, if you're going to have projectors in a space like this, you've got to muffle them, or all is lost.

There's a post-curtain call jam session, which, I suspect, will send members of the target audience out into the night on a high note. But are there really enough of them who will put up with so much dead air in order to hear their favorite songs delivered by musical theatre performers? I am not -- nor was I ever -- a Deadhead, but, if you must make a show based on their songs, Garcia, Hunter, and the others at least deserve something better than this. They were, at least, professional, something Red Roses, Green Gold certainly is not. -- David Barbour

(30 October 2017)

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