Okay, so a “shaggy dog story.” Definition: a very long story or anecdote with lots of narrative (and often pointless) asides that eventually leads to a punchline that evokes, at best, a shrug. If you don’t wish to memorize the definition and prefer a visual reference, all you need do is get yourself up to TheaterWorks in Hartford and sit through “The River,” a tedious, slumber-fest of a play that may very well be chock-full of meaning and heavy with symbolism, but if so, the deep messages and trenchant metaphors escaped at least one theatergoer.
Yes, yes, I understand that we often “bait our hooks” to catch someone we might be interested in, and once they’re hooked we gently (or sometimes violently) reel them in and “land them,” and I’m familiar with the “Golden Apples of the Sun” and the lines: “…caught a little silver trout / And when I laid it on the ground / And gone to blow the fire aflame / Then something rustled on the floor / And someone called me by my name / It had become a glimmering girl / With apple blossoms in her hair / Who called me by my name and ran / And vanished in the brightening air.” Yup, yup got all that, but neither the fishing trope nor the poetic/folk-song allusion is sufficient, in and of themselves, to construct a play that might hold one’s interest.
Okay, so what, pray tell, is “The River,” written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Rob Ruggiero, actually about? Well, it’s about…it’s about…let me see, let me think. Okay, it’s about this Man (Billy Carter) who owns a cabin nestled in the woods near a river. This man likes to fish and he asks women to join him in pursuit of his passion – it is, in effect, his come-on line: “Wanna come up to my cabin and watch me fish?” Yes, I know, he says it more poetically, but when you boil it down (or pan-fry it) that’s his pick-up line, and it’s apparently successful (maybe) because, as the play opens, he has lured (no pun intended) The Woman (Andrea Goss) to join him for a finny weekend of frolic and fly-fishing. Ah, but he has done this before, for there’s The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor) who has also been at the cabin, and apparently he has used the same lines (once again, no pun intended) on her as he uses on the new woman. Okay, so what happens? Well, essentially nothing – actually there may be quite a lot going on, but to grasp it you must maintain consciousness.
To give you an idea of what the high point of the play might be, about half-way through the single act our stalwart fisherman turns on some music and takes a trout that the Woman has caught and prepares it for dinner. Okay, are you ready for this dramatic rise in tension? Here goes: he guts the fish and pulls out the bloody innards, rinses the fish to get out all of the blood, then cuts some slices into the fish, sprinkles on some olive oil, adds some salt and pepper (the tension mounts!), cuts a lemon and shoves the slices into the fish, then adds some herbs and…voila! It’s ready for the oven (by now you’re probably at the edge of your seat!). Oh, yes, then he washes his hands and towels them off (Are you still awake, still with me?). How long does this take? I didn’t time it, but it seemed an eternity. Again, rampant symbolism? Your guess is as good as (or probably better) than mine.
Besides the lesson in fish preparation, the audience is treated to several extended monologues delivered by Man, Woman and Other Woman. They would be fine for use if one was going to audition, but as integral elements in a play they lay as flat as that dead fish on the table. Why? Because there’s no emotional investment, there’s nothing up for grabs, nothing to win or lose for Man, Woman and Other Woman – it just seems like they’re up there on the stage to deliver lines – yes, they are often very well-written lines but, so what, it’s supposed to be a play not a poetry reading.
Goss, Carter and Batchelor do their level best to bring some life into this essentially lifeless script. Goss is delightfully animated, Carter does know how to work a monologue to capture all of its nuances, and Batchelor gives the Other Woman one part sweet and one part saucy, but, alas, it’s all for naught, for I can’t envision anyone in the audience caring about these characters, caring about what happens to them…because, quite honestly, nothing really happens to them.
Going back to the “Golden Apples,” some of the poem’s closing lines are: “I will find out where she has gone / And know her mouth and take her hands.” Well, that’s what Man seems to be doing, searching for this woman…or searching for the moment when, as a 7-year-old boy, he held a quivering trout in his hands and it leapt back into the river. The poem, the moment (which Man relates in one of his monologues) and the search for one’s soul-mate are all interesting elements, but they need to be hung on a dramatic framework – they could be considered to be the ornaments one places on a Christmas tree, but without the tree, its limbs, its structure, they’re just baubles.
“The River” runs through November 11. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org