I remember the first time in my life I asked a question that had no satisfactory answer. I was maybe, 11 and asked a buddy at school something about why other kids made such a big deal about school dances, or maybe why she never did her math homework or whatever. Her answer was, “I don’t know man, why does anybody do anything?”
My mind was blown. Why does anybody do anything? I had been living in this world where, up to this point, the answer to “why” was usually “because the ocean is blue,” or “because it’s nacho cheese,” or “because I said so.” I’d never been confronted with the idea that if you ask enough questions, there’s nothing there. Suddenly no truth was for granted, and that included math homework.
The River, a play that is ostensibly about a guy who really wants a lady to go fly fishing with, is this feeling made manifest onstage and in more ways than one. The play begins with a man, rushing excitedly in full fishing gear, violently waxing poetic about the vicious satisfaction achieved by catching. A woman enters – she is nonplussed. The man, alternately incredulous and impassioned, practically begs the woman to come along. She refuses, then feels guilty, then justified, then bashful. They are two performers making big choices, constantly, again and again.
In this opening scene, the play is something like the world’s most insane sitcom. The man (Andrew William Smith), is frantic in his fishy ecstasy – in terms of stage presence, he isn’t entirely dissimilar to the pulpy energy of a ’70s B-movie shaman, swaying from spot to spot onstage, gesticulating wildly. The woman (Diana Michelle Griffith), is equally filled with a caffeine-y, bubbly energy. Things, in short and bizarre moments, get tense. The woman moves a table, and it visibly gives the man pause. “I’m the girl who moved the table!” the woman exclaims, exasperated with herself.
Besides being completely and totally bewildering, The River is an unsettling space, with truths that give way to truer falsehoods, which give way to less than even that. Over time, a second woman (Siovhan Christensen) – or, maybe she should be the first? – returns after the first has left. Her onstage presence is completely different in every way, but she wears the clothes of the first woman.
The man, nor the play, will answer these questions. Most interestingly of all, neither will the characters. One character will recount something he or she said or did, and in such excruciating detail that no new character revelation or moment of self-discovery is not concluded with some uneasy ellipses.
It’s important to note that the question of “what?” isn’t really paramount to understanding The River. Sure, the play features shifts in the timeline of the man’s life with frequency, but knowing that is enough. It’s the “why?” we’re inside of here. This man is nothing if not off-putting when he describes the electricity of fishing, and its clear ties to his masculinity compound the sensation.
Adil Monsoor’s direction has given an otherwise ethereal play some (erratic) shape. Critical consensus of The River’s initial run commonly center around the play’s sense of ghostly artifice, and paint the experience as vague, yet menacing. Monsoor’s adaptation is less grim, largely in part of the sheer energy of his performers. These nameless protagonists don’t let moments hang in the air so much as they release the moments into the air, and swipe desperately towards whatever energy it is they’ve exerted.
This isn’t to say that the play has totally lost its arguably creepy vibe, so much as it’s been redirected. One memorable scene involving running water and a red dress is surreal to watch because, just for a few minutes, the world feels quiet, and intimate – but even here, a genuinely surprising outburst reveals the trap door we’ve been fooling ourselves not to notice.
Still, for a play that is more than anything about the artificial, it’s not inappropriate that Mansoor’s The River explores the 20-sided die of emotional extremity in these characters. We see in real time how one outburst of emotion directly reflects an equal and opposite emotion in the character. In some ways, it is like a sitcom, insomuch as it is the dark, ugly, and warm-blooded reflection of one.
This is not a show one walks out of blankly, listing the positive and negative traits of the night, remarking on its relative quality compared to other recent shows. An audience member’s ability to enjoy this will be directly reliant on their ability to enjoy sitting in that forever-loop of unanswerable questions that is as profound as it is meaningless, the same space I first discovered when I was 11, staring past the algebra lesson in front of me thinking about not doing my homework.
Special thanks to Quantum Theatre for complimentary press tickets.
The River runs along the Allegheny River in Aspinwall through October 30th. For tickets and more information, click here.