Of Love and Fishing: Musings on The River – February 1, 2015

As it is evident throughout this blog, I tend to gravitate towards musicals, but every now and then I do see straight plays – sometimes new works, other times classic works. Of course, these tendencies are thrown out the (figurative) window if there’s an actor (or actors) I admire in a particular production. Such was the case when one of my good friends took me to see The River, a new play by Jez Butterworth, starring Hugh Jackman, currently playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre. While he’s gained worldwide fame (and a legion of fans) from his diverse movie roles, I was first became aware of Hugh Jackman through his theatre work (most of which was in his native Australia) – he played Joe Gillis in the Australian production of Sunset Blvd., a production that sadly does not have an official cast recording (though I’m sure bootlegs exist out there in the dark…). He is a triple threat (actor, singer, and dancer) with enough star power to bring in box office records whenever he returns to the stage.

The River marquee

Admittedly, this was one of those rare times I purposely went into a show “blind” – I knew next to nothing about the plot of the play (except the fact that Hugh Jackman was in it), so I was anxious and curious to see how the play would unfold. Also, this was my first venture into the Circle in the Square Theatre, located next to/within (I’m not quite sure how the exact building layout is) the Gershwin Theatre, as well as my first time seeing a show where the audience occupies three sides of the stage. The play is set inside a cabin near a river and centers on an unnamed Man and his attempts to convince with two different (also unnamed) women to go fishing with him on a moonless night. The actual location is not specified (to my recollection, though given the accents used by the actors, I can hazard a guess that the location is somewhere in Ireland) and time seems to be somewhat out of joint (or at least is wibbly-wobbly), as the two women (differentiated in the playbill as The Woman and The Other Woman) enter and exit the stage, interacting with The Man without acknowledging one another. Much of the dialogue between the Man and both Women is conversational and (at times) confrontational, and leads to startling revelations and hidden truths. The poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by W.B Yeats is prominent throughout the play, and (after doing some research about the poem, as I’m not an ardent fan of poetry) it’s poignantly symbolic within the context of the play.

The River cast list

The staging of the play was unique, as the layout of the theater is such that the audience surrounds the stage, which looked smaller and narrower than most other stage areas. Also, the sound and lighting design made it feel as if the audience was peering into that cabin near the river, with ambient sounds throughout, and absolute silence at the high dramatic points in the play. The latter sensation was a startlingly refreshing experience, helped by the fact that during the customary pre-show announcement, the audience was instructed to turn off their mobile devices (and not just to put them on silent) for the duration of the 85 minute play – and the audience complied. Aside from a smattering of applause for Hugh Jackman’s entrance, and some laughter at the more humorous bits of dialogue, there was absolute silence. In this non-musical role, Hugh Jackman was brilliant, playing the humor and drama of the interactions with the two women with honesty and emotion. Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly as The Woman and The Other Woman, respectively, played off Jackman’s performance with great intensity, bringing out a perfect storm of raw emotion as the play unfolded.

The stage door experience was great, with a throng of people patiently waiting for the cast to emerge to sign playbills. While the crowd outside waiting was large, there weren’t as many people waiting as I thought there would be, but then again, I hazard a guess that the snow and the cold deterred some from braving the elements. I didn’t linger at the stage door for too long (or as long as I usually do), as the weather forecast told of another round of snowfall in the hours to come – I had a long commute home and didn’t want to be stranded in the City.

Hugh Jackman

The River is in its final weeks – there are only a few more performances left until it closes on February 8th, and I kinda regret not going to see this play sooner, but I’m very glad I got the chance to see it. It’s a thought-provoking tale of a man contemplating his connection with the art (craft?) of fishing and how it applies to the relationships he has/had/having with the two women he’s brought to that cabin for a night of fishing. There is a lot of ambiguity in this play, which makes an audience question what exactly is going on, and gives them a puzzle to solve – or at least that’s the impression I got. As an avid mystery reader (and aspiring mystery novelist) I was waiting for a more sinister plot twist which never emerged, though my personal headcanon will adhere to the darker path I deduced (one about which I might just write) – whether or not it’s correct is beside the point. Not knowing the actual linear progression of the play (or even if the events actually occurred) makes for a very interesting time at the theater, leaving an audience to wonder and make their own conclusions.

The River playbill

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