Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The River
Walking Shadow Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of 600 Years and Bars and Measures


Andrew Erskine Wheeler and Elizabeth Efteland
Photo by Dan Norman
Fly fishing provides the frame on which Jez Butterworth has hung his play The River, now being presented in a well-honed Minnesota premiere by Walking Shadow Theatre Company. As described in the play, fly fishing is no mere sport; it is a ritualized practice that allows the fisher to become one with nature, even while asserting dominance by tricking witless fish to leap to the bait. The central character in The River is a man (called simply The Man), who may be mistaking strategies for catching fish with strategies for reeling in women.

At the play's start, we meet The Man and The Woman in a rustic fishing cabin that had belonged to The Man's uncle, beside a river ripe with ocean trout. It appears that the two have not known each other very long, and The Woman's expectation is a secluded opportunity to become better acquainted. However, The Man has determined that this woman is the woman with whom he will share his life. His means of taking that leap of faith is to teach her the art of fly fishing for ocean trout, a pursuit he treats as a sacred ritual in this special place with its ancestral claims on his devotion, which he has never shared with another woman.

The Man has chosen the darkest of nights for this occasion, with a moonless sky, the utter darkness being the best conditions for catching the wondrous ocean trout. Along with the act of fly fishing, The Man heaps praise upon this species, attributing almost supernatural prowess to it. He barely hears The Woman state that she'd rather skip the fishing, to nurse a sunburn and settle in with her book, so engrossed is he in preparations to wade into the rushing river. As he lures the trout by casting flies, he lures The Woman with a blend of poetry and chastening.

The next scene begins with The Man storming into the cabin, frantically calling the police for help: The Woman has disappeared in the dark. In short order she turns up, unscathed; actually, she in terrific spirits. She hardly seems the same woman who earlier had resisted traipsing into the river to catch trout. In fact, by all appearances she is not the same woman. Nor, in her presence, is The Man the same domineering male. For the remainder of the ninety minute play The Man lays bare his desires, to these women, yet the more he states, the less certain we are. Everything about The Man begins to seem subject to question. Even the legacy of his uncle, who passed his knowledge and love of fly fishing on to The Man, begins to be suspect.

This makes the play quite a head-scratcher, though no one is likely to scratch too rigorously, as it is hard to care about these characters. The Man is over stuffed with poetics and inept at forming real connections. He is unable to reveal truth, only to obscure it. Both The Woman and The Other Woman are seen only in relation to The Man's pursuit of them. Neither woman reveals any depth or distinction. The ocean trout's inborn instinct to swim against current to their spawning place year after year in a cycle of continuous regeneration may represent The Man's repeated encounters with women in this isolated cottage, the place that is his spiritual birthplace. But the trout need nothing more than to sustain the cycle of their lives and replenish new generations. What will be the outcome of this man's repeated forays against the current?

In spite of The River being a rather unsatisfying play, Amy Rummenie manages to direct with flair, prompting the players on stage to behave as if nothing changes from scene to scene, even when what we see has completely changed. She also draws out heat and sexuality, particularly between The Man and The Other Woman. An extended scene in which The Man fillets a fish and prepares an entire dinner is almost balletic in its grace and precision, being perhaps the only time that The Man is his true self.

Andrew Erskine Wheeler, who was brilliant in Walking Shadow's The Christians last spring, plays The Man, giving him the bloat of a person who believes that myth and poetry can substitute for one's true self. His oversized emotions conceal his true feelings, and Wheeler captures this essence. Emily Grodzik portrays The Woman as unprepared for the stakes that The Man has placed upon this weekend. She is reticent, unsure of her role in this encounter. Elizabeth Efteland reveals The Other Woman's self-confidence, with the strength to hold her own, or even take the upper hand, against The Man. She is uninhibited and comfortable with herself.

The physical production is quite beautiful. The intimate space in Open Eye Figure Theatre, where Walking Shadow's production has been mounted, has been put to terrific use, with a handsome, realistic cabin setting by Steve Kath. Lighting design by Paola Rodriguez depicts the darkening of the sky through the cabin window, and the dimming of light within the cabin, while Katherine Horowitz' sound design, with a constant low chirping of crickets and rushing of water, brings the essence of the natural surroundings to the stage. Horowitz also composed lovely viola pieces as mood-heightening bridges between scenes.

The River falls into the category of play that may have more value as one reflects upon it than during the initial viewing of it in the theater. It seems to have some deep themes and points of view on the way in which men and woman reiterate, or fail to reiterate, the process of coming together as a unit. The absence of names for its characters certainly gives the sense of aspiration to universality. However, to succeed in this lofty goal, a play needs to have a conflict that catches our breath, and characters that we can at least believe in, if not care about. Though Butterworth has fallen short in those ends, Walking Shadow Theatre Company has given The River an opportunity to shine by way of strong direction, performances, and design.

The River, a Walking Shadow Theatre Company production, continues through September 17, 2016, at Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis, MN Tickets are $26.00 general admission, $24.00 for seniors, $15.00 for students, veterans and active military personnel, $10.00 economic accessibility program (limited number for each performance). For tickets and information go to walkingshadowcompany.org or call 612-375-0300.

Writer: Jez Butterworth; Director: Amy Rummenie; Set Design and Technical Director: Steve Kath; Costume Design: Sara Wilcox; Light Design: Paolo Rodriguez; Composer and Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Props Design: Robert Bobbie Smith; Vocal Coach: Quinn Shadko; Recorded Viola: Sarah Bauer; Production Manager: David Pisa; Stage Manager: Kasey Jo Gratz

Cast: Elizabeth Efteland (The Other Woman), Emily Grodzik (The Woman), Andrew Erskine Wheeler (The Man).


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