Jez Butterworth’s The River, now at Chicago’s BoHo Theatre, is one of the most predetermined plays I have ever seen. By “predetermined,” I don’t mean predictable, exactly, but rather that, in retrospect, after all its dramatic complications have unspooled, the play seems predictable. This, despite the fact that The River is swarming with ambiguities, deliberate mystifications, and a plethora of overly poeticized metaphors and symbols. It could be characterized as a mess, except that, at its conclusion, there’s a neatly wrapped moral lesson that renders the puzzling loose ends largely irrelevant. It’s all far too pat.
The River, directed by Jerrell L. Henderson, is set in an isolated fishing cabin in the woods near a river, thick with wild sea trout, where the unnamed male protagonist (Joe Lino) has been coming since he was a little boy. Now, as a man with a stentorian speaking voice and highly advanced angling skills, he brings women to the cabin to seduce them, just as his uncle did with countless women before him. And yet, for the protagonist, these aren’t really seductions at all, since the two women who share the stage with him at various points are clearly already his girlfriends. Instead, he would appear to be using the moonless night, the mysterious migrations of the wild sea trout, and his own untameably poetic nature to manipulate and control women who already are deeply attached to him.
The two women in this play, also unnamed, appear in roughly alternating scenes. The first time his first girlfriend disappears in the middle of the night, somewhere along the river, the man calls the police, genuinely frantic. But when there’s a knock at the door, a different actress enters, and yet the protagonist nonetheless seems both relieved and unsurprised to see her. It takes a few more scenes for the audience to realize that this is probably not a reprise of the central conceit of Luis Bunuel’s 1977 film, That Obscure Object of Desire, in which the same female character is played in alternating scenes by two actresses who don’t look anything like each other. Nor is this a dramatic variation of a farce, in which the man is juggling two willing females in one small cabin at the same time, each unaware of the other’s presence. Here, rather, the protagonist is seen to be treating what would appear to be very different women, at different times, as if they were interchangeable, with the same fly-fishing lessons, late-night poetry sessions, fresh-caught fish dinners with whiskey and wine, and supposedly mysterious objects that he has dredged from the river bed and that he attempts to present to each woman as a gift.
This isn’t a spoiler; it’s central to the play from fairly close to its beginning. But to say more about what happens in his relationships with these two women would be to give away too much of the far too simple narrative, though there are wispy hints, here and there, of a ghost story and possibly of a murder mystery. The plot, indeed, is very much subordinated in The River to the gradual baring of the lies, insincerities, obfuscations and omissions that this ultimately pathetic angler has somehow determined – despite his spoken desire to not be like his womanizing uncle – should be the basis of his sexual and romantic relationships.
A good part of the obfuscations on display are the main character’s poetic speeches about the beauty and mystery of fly fishing, not to mention an actual poem that he makes his girlfriend(s) read from a volume by the renowned poet Ted Hughes. One of the girlfriends, seeing Hughes’ name on the cover of the book, can barely proceed to the poem itself without gagging; she knows that Hughes, who was married to Sylvia Plath, was a notorious playboy who, himself, evidently used his poetry and his square-jawed good looks to “snag” women (the fishing term is used here deliberately).
Though the London-born Butterworth is clearly an estimable playwright – his Jerusalem and The Ferryman are important plays – The River is shallow work that may convince some that it is deep by the very same means, ironically and perhaps just a bit hypocritically, that the protagonist does, through its high-flown poeticization of a message, about how our partners in love ought to be treated, that should be reasonably simple.
The production of The River at BoHo Theatre does Buttterworth no particular favors, though through no fault of the actors. Christina Gorman, as the first of the two onstage girlfriends, is excellent, particularly as we watch her adjust subtly to her growing understanding of her boyfriend’s lies – and as she admits to a certain prevarication of her own. Joe Lino as the protagonist is fine. But the staging is flat. The fishing cabin set looks pretty much like what you’d expect an isolated fishing cabin to look like, and not in a particularly good way. There’s some use of dramatic musical cues and a fog machine to, in effect, poke the audience in the ribs that something important is happening. And most disappointing of all, I am given to understand that some previous productions of the play featured the onstage gutting, prepping and cooking of an actual trout, whereas in this production, the “role” is played by what appears to be a rubber fish. This is possibly an unavoidable exigency created by regulations prohibiting onstage cooking in Chicago, and, it is to be hoped, not merely a failure of nerve on the part of the theatre company. Or maybe it was a real fish, but I sure didn’t smell it cooking. Either way, the unobjectionable but unsurprising morality and insistent poetry of The River left me feeling distinctly unsated – seduced and abandoned.
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