By Karen Isaacs
Jez Butterworth, whose play The River is at TheaterWorks through Sunday, Nov. 11, is one of the “hot” British playwrights and screenwriters. Jerusalem won plaudits on Broadway, winning multiple awards; Broadway is now awaiting the opening of The Ferryman which won acclaim (and awards) in London last season.
Sometimes I wonder if the emperor is wearing any clothes. I saw The River when it had a limited engagement run on Broadway a few years ago, starring Hugh Jackman. At the time, I felt Jackman’s box office appeal was the reason for its success. It did not get critical acclaim.
But apparently Rob Ruggiero who directed this production loved the ambiguity of it and has now brought it to Hartford. It’s a fine production with very good actors. Ruggiero and the actors make the most of the material in this 70-75 minute play.
Certainly there is ambiguity about almost everything in the play and enough possible symbols and metaphors to keep you puzzling over it for hours. The question remains, is it worth the intellectual effort?
Once again, we have nameless characters – The Woman, The Man, The Other Woman. The play is set in a well-designed (by Brian Prather) cabin that The Man’s family has used as a fishing cabin for years. It’s all wood and natural. The cabin – which shows the back room (probably the bedroom) takes the center of the stage, with tall trees on each side.
It’s clear that The Man has brought The Woman here for a special few days. It is August, there is no moon and it seems that at this time of year the sea trout return to breed. It is the best time to capture them. So we learn that The Man has spent the afternoon teaching The Woman to cast; now she doesn’t want to go to the fishing spot.
We see him return to the cabin and frantically call for help – she is missing! But the woman who returns to the cabin – with a fish is not The Woman but The Other Woman, an earlier woman he had brought to the cabin.
Every time one of the women leaves the stage you can be sure that the other will be the woman to return.
So the questions begin to pile up. Are these the only two women he’s brought there? Why does he bring them there? It seems like well-rehearsed scene with both he and the women repeating the same lines. He tells each there is a box under the bed and something is in it he want to give to each; something he has never shared with anyone. The Woman seems alarmed because she thinks it is a ring – it is obvious that she isn’t that interested in him.
The mood gets eerie when The Woman finds a drawing of a woman in a red dress in the room: her face is scratched out and a red dress is hanging in the closet. The scene is repeated with the earlier Other Woman. So what is going on?
In Ruggiero’s notes in the program, he certainly points out many of the possible meanings and symbols in this play. The metaphor of fly fishing – baiting, hooking, capturing, releasing. The idea of the sea trout (which apparently evolved from river trout) returning each year but instead of dying after procreating, returning to the sea stronger. The ephemeral nature of love which can come and go in an instant.
In fact the characters say lines like “you can’t go back,” “I’m not entirely sure what love is” and more.
You can also wonder if The Other Woman actually exists – is she real, a memory/flashback, a ghost? Is either woman real or figments of his imagination?
In one section, The Man guts a sea trout and cooks it for The Woman. It is a quiet scene with no dialogue just some background music. But why? Is it also a symbol?
Billy Carter plays The Man as more dangerous than Jackman did. You keep wondering what his game is and what he will do next. He may not have Jackman’s charisma (who does?) but his performance is nuanced and solid.
The Woman is played by Andrea Goss. At times she came across as what could be called “a spoiled brat” – you don’t really see why they are attracted and you don’t feel much chemistry between them.
That’s not the case with Jasmine Batchelor as The Other Woman. She seems to have created a fuller character and some real chemistry with The Man.
One of the better parts of the production is the music by Frederick Kennedy which emphasizes both woodlands and the eerie qualities of the play.
How you will rate The River will be a factor of how you interpret the piece and how much you enjoy solving the mysteries.
Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Many may feel the same about The River. I was not intrigued enough to try to untangle it all. You may be.
The River is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through Sunday, Nov. 11. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.
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