By ROY BERKO
In the late 1950’s through the 1980s The Theatre of the Absurd theatrical movement was the intellectual rage. Based on the concept of Existentialism which asks, “what happens when human existence lacks meaning or purpose and communication breaks down.” The structure of the plays often centered on the finishing point, being the same as the starting point with the ultimate conclusion being silence.
Playwrights of the era included Samuel Becket, Eugene Ionesco and Edward Albee. Their plays have a common denominator — the “absurd”, a word that Ionesco defined as ” that which has not purpose, or goal, or objective.” Albert Camus describes the purpose of that era’s plays to illustrate that “the human situation as meaningless and absurd.”
Probably the most memorable works of that era were Waiting for Godot and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Though Jez Butterworth is not of that age or era, his play The River is the ilk of those times in structure and message. It is haunting, dark, often off-putting for a lack of clear purpose, and circular in charting a curved line from beginning to end.
There is a mystery throughout the show that we continue to think about, but, in fairness to potential theatre-goers, is not fair to reveal.
What can be revealed? It’s an eerie tale and a borderline ghost story that also feels firmly grounded in a familiar reality.
The setting is a small Minnesota cottage on a river. A small wooden table and several chairs sit in the center, a fully stocked kitchen, a cooler, a library nook, and an oven complete the pace.
“The plot concerns the main character of The Man as he brings his girlfriend, The Woman, to his family’s cabin. As the sun sets, there is much that happens in this cabin—things that will happen and have already happened, as time begins to fold into itself. This eeriness might be jarring in the early going, but impeccable acting and strong directing truly make The River feel human even in its strangest moments.”
As previous reviews say of the play, “The greatest attribute of The River is it’s a somber conjuring to the idea of memory and thoughts of the bygone past.”
Also, “The River is one of the better plays about love. Not love as manifested in a relationship with a plot so much as just that big, unwieldy emotion of love itself–the need, the desire, the ache, the way one willingly deludes oneself into thinking you can ever fully escape your romantic past and not have it somehow taint your relationships in the present.”
As well as, “I spent much of this play trying to figure out what was happening, but in a good way. The kind of figuring out that keeps you completely engrossed and on the edge of your seat to see what happens next.”
The Ensemble production is well conceived by director Ian Wolfgang Hintz. The presentation, performed on a runway stage with the audience seated on both sides, which allows for an interactive intimacy as the audience members share the stage with those on the other side of the stage, thus making for a shared intimacy.
The acting is totally natural, which each performance being of a real, fleshed out person. No acting by Dan Zalensky (The Man), Becca Moseley (The Woman), Laura Rauh (The Other Woman) and Laurel Hoffman (Another Woman), just being. Being to the degree that the audience is sucked into the happening, the reality.
It’s so real that one can’t avoid being involved in the decapitation of a fish…complete with the head and entrails removed as a meal is prepared. Sounds gross…it isn’t. It is just part of the required reality.
Is this a murder mystery? Is it an analogy of fishing? Is it a study of relationships and loneliness? Is it a statement of the meaning or life? Is it???.
Capsule judgment: The River is not a play for everyone. Go if you love theatre which is well directed and acted; but, as with most absurdist plays, it doesn’t render a solution. It is a play that, even after you leave, doesn’t let you go.
The River ran at Ensemble Theatre located in the Performing Arts Center of Notre Dame College, 4545 College Road in South Euclid from February 20 – March 5.