By James V. Ruocco
There are many things that make a play by Jez Butterwiorth stand out.
The scripts, for example, are intoxicating overflowing with language that is layered, powerful and utterly distinctive. At times, there's also a poetic, ambitious naturalism to the dialogue that hooks the audience and makes them want to listen.
The characters in turn, are absorbing, soulful, serious, sentimental, offbeat and articulate. Depending on the piece, they are also full of private passions, wandering reminiscences, gentle graces, mad pronouncements, jovial elan and heartfelt dedication.
Directorially, Butterworth's plays give the interpreter the opportunity to work in an multi-textured environment of conventions, clashes, dreams, realities, myths, mysteries, melodrama, darkness and surprise.
Case in point: "The River" at TheaterWorks/Hartford.
This is a proud, unapologetic piece of theater that celebrates Butterworth's resilience as a playwright, the aching beauty of his theatrical language and his ability to probe deeply into the lives of his characters.
From the start, "The River" captures your attention. It is both intimate and propulsive. It also pivots on strange and quirky, laying clues, missteps, stories, lies and remembrances, all of which lend themselves nicely to the grand scheme of things laid out by the playwright.
Set in a remote, rural fishing cabin, "The River," at first glance, focuses its attention on two people, a man and a woman, newly acquainted, who are trying to make small talk. But when the woman leaves the room, then returns, she has morphed into a completely different female who is also mutually attracted to the handsome fisherman who has brought her there. The man, in turn, doesn't notice the change, even when the first woman reappears much later and then, soon after, it's time for yet another switcheroo as the second female makes another appearance.
Director Rob Ruggiero ("Next to Normal," "Rabbit Hole," "Venus in Fur," "The Laramie Project") is the perfect boulevardier to bring Jez Butterworth's snap of a play to life. There's thought and imagination to his approach. There's a wonderful sense of adventure and chance. There's also a boldness and gentleness which serves the material well.
As ever with Ruggiero, he leaves no stone unturned. That said, his grasp of the entire piece is uncanny. He knows how and when to pique your interest. He knows how to build, develop, pause and run. He knows how to play fast and fluid with the narrative. He gives his cast great opportunities to work with, as both actor and creator. And though things are studied, practiced and rehearsed, his direction is free, precise and observant without any form of calculation.
With "The River," he offers theatergoers a deft, calibrated drama that toys with your senses and when necessary, tosses fragments of bait in your lap, which, when you think about is the point of Butterworth's three-character drama. Nonetheless, it's up to you to figure things out. Yes, Ruggiero know exactly what's going on and what the playwright had devised scene by scene, frame by frame. But at the same time, there is that nagging sense of wonderment.
Are things real? Are things imagined? Is this a ghost story? Are the characters dead or alive? Was someone murdered? Is this a dream? Are we in the past, present or future? And what about that gutted fish? Metaphor? Parable? Or simply, a savory dinner for two?
Regardless, "The River" plunges forward with probing, inevitable intensity. Things get eerie and cryptic, but no one drowns. Instead, the heart beats faster. The bewilderment grows. And just when you think you know what the hell is going on, Ruggiero pulls the plug, the lights fade and suddenly, it's all over. But wait. The mystery remains leaving you and yours to decide what just happened, what it all means and how you think it all ends.
The acting is faultless. Billy Carter brings heart and soul to the part of The Man who quotes Claudius Aelianus, William Butler Yeats and Ted Hughes. His recitation of Butterworth's pungent dialogue is pitch-perfect precise as is his gutting of a sea trout that, in this version, doesn't end up with a severed, bloodied head in full view of the audience. The Woman and The Other Woman, played respectively by Andrea Goss and Jasmine Batchelor, generate the right appeal, mystery and allure. They also project the necessary angst, determination, eeriness and skittishness associated with their parts. All three bring a strong sense of dramatic purpose to the piece and are perfectly in sync with the play's moody, twisty undercurrents and its metaphorical nuance.
"The River" is an intriguing, complex drama that haunts, taunts and teases its audience with a mystery at heart that purposely forces one to draw his/her own conclusions. Its theories are indeed, food for thought for all who see it and succumb to its thrilling strangeness. Rob Ruggiero's clear, sometimes quirky direction mirrors playwright Jez Butterworh's tangy exploration. And the cast, a thoroughly fascinating threesome, reflect this vision, most engagingly.
"The River" is being staged at TheaterWorks/Hartford (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through November 11.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838