Walking in to see my first Quantum Theatre production ever I had no idea what to expect. Chickens in the Yardby playwright Paul Kruse has given me a unique style to continue to look forward to from Quantum, and the Hatch Arts Collective. From the moment I entered the space in Lawrenceville I was invited not just to watch but to participate in a theatrical event. The space, what appeared to be a small gutted machine shop, had been designed by Britton Mauk to feel/look like both a back porch, and a recently built chicken coop. Basing wholly on the title of the play, the corrugated sheet metal, simple pine set, and warm lights strung across the rafters, it made me feel like I was inside a home-made chick incubator. The simplicity of the set, acceptance of the performance space, and the fact that elements blended together throughout the span the entire house made me feel welcomed and invited to this world.
Playwright Paul Kruse has created a wonderful set of characters in his writing. This play features several story arcs that all weave tightly together, like chicken wire, closely wound together at points, spreading apart only to tightly wind around another. The play opens with three chickens, Lucille Two (Laurie Klatscher), Bruce Lee (Joseph McGranaghan), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Alec Silberblatt) strutting around the yard in hen-peckingly precise stylized movement. While I was a little nervous at this opening action, wondering how a play about chickens was going to keep me engaged, I was quickly, and carefully shown.
The transition between movement of chickens, and the entrance of human characters was created in a delightfully simple convention of stepping slightly off and on stage. Through these carefully and clearly observed conventions chickens became humans as the characters who seek out discovery of self and family.
The scene begins Tom, also played by Silberblatt, and Joyce, played by Klatscher, having a discussion of concern that it’s been almost a year and none of the hens have lain any eggs, and an apologetic Tom admitting that he’s forgotten to by chicken feed on his way home from work. Instead, he brought home a fourth chicken. The fourth chicken, Anne Hutchinson (Siovhan Christensen) timidly joins the brood. Within minutes Anne Hutchinson is fighting with Bruce Lee.
The scene progresses as Joyce’s son John, Tom’s partner, played by McGranaghan, arrives home from work. Hints of tension are revealed as the young hospital administrator is asked about his day with his reply of “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Amidst the excited clucking of approval and uncertainty, John is let off the hook as Abby, Tom’s sister, whom he hasn’t seen since he left his family’s farm when she was four, appears at the door. Abby, played by Christensen, arrives at the house under the guise of researching colleges in the city. She enters the space as timidly as her fowl counterpart did minutes ago. Abby’s surprise visit, puts all previous conversations on hold, allowing them to incubate, and grow throughout the show, at the same time creating a fantastic tension as her own problems add to the mix.
Laurie Klatscher, who plays Joyce Park, proved to be a great mother hen for the cast. She has developed a powerful balance between a seemingly aloof hippy raising chickens in the city, and a woman who is incredibly sharp. In group scenes, she is seen to be incredibly caring and free spirited, encouraging creative thought and gentle banter. In moments alone with other characters, Klatscher uses these elements to powerfully inform Joyce’s maternal instincts, revealing a woman who is truly grounded and protective of those around her. Klatscher has developed a character who has accepted who she is, and what she wants.
McGranaghan and Silberblatt’s characters spend the most time searching for their identities. John, the more down to earth of the couple, spends much of his time trying to discover who he is. While Tom, an out of work artist, is searching to understand their identity as a couple. The two cluck and coo as feathers get ruffled, when John, unsure of who he is, struggles to understand Tom’s selfless need for John to be happy.
Watching Ms. Christenson craft Abby is as intense as it is unsettling. She comes off as incredibly shy and quiet, kind and polite. Much like her counterpart, Abby is quick to avoid conversations that get too close to the truth. It is clear that she is telling a different story to each character, her way of struggling to discover who she is. More important is her own self-discovery of why she lies.
It was evident to me throughout the show how careful and clear director Adil Mansoor was with his intentions. There never seemed to be a moment that wasn’t well thought out and crafted as discovery of self unfolds for each character in the show. However some of the stylistic choices didn’t always make sense to me. In several flashbacks during the show several actors at once would appear as a memories of a single character, moving and speaking in beautifully crafted moments, but I was not sure of necessity of the stylistic choice.
Patrick Hayes lighting design, and David JM Bielewicz’ sound design were great conceptual aids to the show. While in the present moments, the lighting was warm and inviting, and the live music gentle and caressing to the ear. In the more stylistic moments, such as the memories, lights were utilized in a simple shift to a much cooler tone, as did the music. Much like the actors transformation into chickens, this simple convention only aided in the story telling.
So what does it take to “…want the things you want?” And how does one decide who they are? I think Chickens in the Yard explores these questions wonderfully, while not offering a definitive answer. After leaving the theatre, and driving home I wondered that myself. Am I who I will be? Do I want what I want? For now, yes to both questions, but I also expect both answers to change over time. I hope that when they do, I am ready to see, and accept the change.
Special thanks to Quantum Theatre for complimentary press tickets.Chickens in the Yard runs through December 6.