“The Man” is a poet fisherman. “The Woman” and “The Other Woman” are the loves of his life — or so it seems throughout the soggy 85 minutes of Jez Butterworth’s “The River.”
Walking Shadow Theatre Company opened its season with this quixotic piece, which waxes poetic and existential, yet never satisfies its own ambitions. It stimulates — barely — our curiosity, but never gives us reason to invest.
Director Amy Rummenie’s production is no luckier than most previous stagings in solving Butterworth’s elliptical play. Rummenie’s pace is glacial, seemingly hoping to find epic meaning in The Man’s interactions with his mates. Actor Andrew Erskine Wheeler’s overwrought performance makes even simple tasks into a ceremony. Gutting a fish becomes a self-satisfying ritual which, I suppose, is intended to denote a moment of sacrality. Whatever. It only contributes to the impression that this guy is unlike any angler I’ve ever spent time with on the water.
He’s got to be a Northeasterner, maybe an English professor in real life, the way he lays down vocabulary and speaks in sentences that feel scripted a bit too beautifully. He has a flair that would get him laughed out of a Friday night fish fry.
He is at his cabin hoping to coax The Woman (Emily Grodzik) to join him on a moonless night when the sea trout are making a run, an event central to his personal mythology.
She’s inclined to stay in with a good book, so off he goes into the twilight.
When he returns in the second scene, he is frantically on the phone reporting a lost woman. He hears rustling at the back door. Crisis averted. He welcomes back his partner, but it’s not the same woman we saw when the lights went down.
Butterworth, whose “Jerusalem” was such a gripping success, alternates scenes between The Man and the women, recounting moments in their histories. There is a sense that our relationships are transitory and ephemeral. If you enjoy a puzzle, Butterworth comes close to sketching out a teasing enigma that glances at Pinter, but without much meat on the bone.
Grodzik and Elizabeth Efteland (the other woman) build portrayals that are much more in our world than Wheeler’s ode to the ancient mariner. Efteland benefits from a large, friendly personality. They are objects, though, and Rummenie’s production never gets any chemistry going between the women and Wheeler.
Walking Shadow is performing this show at Open Eye Theatre in south Minneapolis — a choice informed by the play’s history. The London production, in a similarly small venue, fashioned enough success to get “The River” to Broadway. There, it evaporated in a big room even as Hugh Jackman labored to pump some air into the central role.
The intimate setting by Steve Kath and an evocative sound design by Katharine Horowitz are able efforts to lure us in, yet we never take the hook in Butterworth’s improbable fish story.
Graydon Royce is a longtime theater critic for the Star Tribune.