The River by Walking Shadow Theatre Co. performing at Open Eye Theatre

Andrew Erskine Wheeler and Elizabeth Efteland in The River. Photo by Dan Norman.

Andrew Erskine Wheeler and Elizabeth Efteland in The River. Photo by Dan Norman.

One encounters: poetry in the theater, and poetry of the theater. In Jez Butterworth‘s The River (Walking Shadow Theatre Co., performing at Open Eye Theatre) there is a lot of the former. Pretty writing. Long set speeches. Memories, spun out at length. Descriptions of past action. Exquisite poetry read aloud. (The early-on and beauteous description of the perfect sunset – from memory – is an excellent example.) This sort of poetry is beautifully rendered and – often – holds our interest. That Butterworth is an accomplished and powerful writer cannot be denied. The River‘s unsettling setting – the small cabin set in the woods, near the dark and icy river, miles from civilization – teems with possibility. Rich stuff.

But of the latter sort of poetry – of the theater – there is precious little. This derives, imho, from the essential static-ness of the play. The River lacks the sudden discovery of character, the thrillingly abrupt grasp of the meaning of story, the wonderful identification with a character’s struggle that typifies poetry of the theater. This staticness makes The River, often, hard to watch (until the pretty writing grabs our attention).

“The Man,” played effectively by Andrew Erskine Wheeler, (none of the characters in The River have proper names) comes, as he always does, to this isolated family cabin to fish for “sea trout.” (What a sea trout is is developed in one of The River‘s particularly affecting long set piece speeches – poetry in the theater. See the play and experience it.) He brings along, as he always does, women. Are these women memories? Fantasies? Emblems of the-love-that-might-have-been? All of the above? These relationships form the dramatic backbone of The River.

And the two women, played by Emily Grodzik and Elizabeth Efteland, are swell. They make sparks fly and they manage to pull the Man out of his fussy OCD shell. Amy Rummenie has directed, as always, with a sure hand.

I will confess that I found The River frustrating. But your mileage may vary. Perhaps you are more appreciative of pretty playwriting. More patient with long set speeches. More willing to enjoy seemingly go-nowhere relationships. To watch as the Man (endlessly) guts and cooks the trout.

Or perhaps you will sit in a cooler section of the theater (i.e., in front). My companion and I found ourselves seated in the hot, sweaty and unventilated back row and this affected our take on the play. My firm advice: come early and sit yourself in the front half of Open Eye.

Kudos to Walking Shadow for taking on a difficult play like The River. There is too much play-it-safe going around. It’s wonderful to encounter a theater willing to take risks.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. Please visit his informational website.



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