If you've ever caught a fish fresh from a stream or lake, you know that they're slippery and feisty. So, you have to bash its head with something heavy so it will lay still and you can get on with the task of cooking it. On the other hand, you could also throw it back into the water.
That's pretty much the experience (and the choice) awaiting you in The River by Jez Butterworth, now at Ensemble Theatre. As the author of the much-lauded play Jerusalem, among others, Butterworth is a talented Brit playwright deserving of attention, and so one approaches his work ready to engage and explore.
But in this instance, his trademark rich language and evocative rhythms all seem wasted in a short (80 minutes) and slight effort that seems to smirk at anyone foolish enough to take it seriously.
Perhaps, one tipoff of what's to come is the fact that none of the four actors have names; they are only referred to in the program as The Man, The Woman, The Other Woman, and Another Woman. That's always a hint that "deep," "symbolic" and "mysterious" doings will be afoot—at least, in the mind of the playwright. So deep and symbolic, in fact, that he can't bring himself to attach actual human names to the people spouting his words. Child, please.
At the center of The River is The Man, who is sharing a cabin on a cliff in the woods near a river somewhere in the English countryside with The Woman. She, as you already know from reading the program, is one of several to come.
Even sight unseen, we can accurately assume that this play will not pass the Bechdel Test, since the women are interchangeable parts who only converse with The Man, relay style, as he shares his obsession with fishing in general and the mystical sea bass in particular. Are these different women? Real or imagined? Do you care? Keep fishing.
When the first of these Women switches happen, The Man (an intense but at times inaudible Dan Zalevsky) takes no note that The Other Woman is a different human being than The Woman, not to mention Another Woman. He insists on regaling the first two with lush, at times overwritten poesy in honor of the scintillating sensations involved with catching and landing a fish, and insists they don their knee-high boots and go with him.
At no time does he ever inquire about what those Women might want to do, like go bowling or maybe bump uglies. No, The Man is chasing Bigger Issues, which might involve former female friends, or dreams of such, along with tortured metaphors involving his first caught fish as a boy, fishing lures, proper culinary fish prep, and so forth.
In short, The River is like most of the poems in The New Yorker, which you read and genuinely admire for their language and style while not actually knowing what the hell they're talking about. This is true even though the two Women who figure most prominently are well-played. As The Woman, Becca Moseley fashions a relatable person with longings for sunsets and poetry, and Laura Rauh is funny and candid as The Other Woman. Even Laurel Hoffman seems interesting in her all-too-brief appearance as Another Woman.
Switching back and forth from conversational patter to soaring lyrical spurts, Butterworth's script, performed in a variety of British accents, is loaded with disguised motives, and murky symbols aplenty (a river rock, a red dress, a sunset, a gutted fish, etc.) These pose a challenge for director Ian Hinz (who triples as set and lighting designer). And he succeeds in creating a cozy cabin feel while also maintaining a degree of tension throughout, although the audience can be forgiven for not exactly knowing what everyone is tense about.
Indeed, the Women in this play seem a good deal more interesting than The Man. And the only clear desire sparked in this viewer was imagining those three gals meeting later in a local pub, tossing down a few Sam Adams, and sharing off-color jibes about The Man in The Cabin on The Cliff by The River.
Through March 5 at Ensemble Theatre, 4545 College Rd, South Euclid, OH 44121, ensembletheatrecle.org.
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