Review: Spooky Action’s ‘The River’

river1The theater space at the Spooky Action Theatre is so intimate you immediately feel you’re in the tiny cabin where all its action in Jez Butterworth’s play “The River” takes place.

Not only do you watch the man rhapsodize about sea trout fly fishing on a moonless night from this old family-owned cabin, and witness the interaction with a woman he’s invited there, you also get to watch a fish’s filleting and smell its cooking and watch its consumption.

But things aren’t quite so simple in the work where the man’s gets romantic about his manly pursuits and his smart companion is onto his schtick, doesn’t particularly want to read a poem from a Ted Hughes book also called “River,” and senses he’s brought other women to this very cabin before her. And sure enough, in Butterworth’s elliptical work, a different woman walks in to take up the conversation where the other left off.

For some, there may be a sense of menace to all of this. He’s playing wth knives, after all, and is opaque about his intent, though he tells each of the women he loves her and refers to W.B. Yeats’ poem “the Song of the Wandering Angus,” conveniently reprinted in the program. What kind of ritual is he involved in? “Trust me,” he intones.

Director Rebecca Holderness doesn’t venture a guess in her taut production, though the program for the production shows a woman plunging underwater (though it looks of concern, there is a passage where a woman talks enthusiastically about plunging naked into a pool on her own volition).

Butterworth, whose 2009 Tony-nominated play “Jerusalem” won a Tony for Mark Ryland, is inspired somewhat by Irish lore here, and in capturing that visceral moment of electricity that jolts one out of everyday existence — as when an unseen creature bites the line.

“The River” played Broadway in a celebrated production starring Hugh Jackman in 2014; it premiered two years earlier in London with Dominic West, now of “The Affair.” Like those men, veteran actor Jeffrey Allen exudes a similar kind of stoic manliness. Emma Jackson and Emma Jackson set off frisky, intelligent sparks as his female companions with very similar costumes (by Erik Teague) if not fates.

Confined without intermission in Vicki R. Davis’ marvelous cabin, appointed by Elizabeth Long (with lighting by Matthew E. Adelson and sound by Gordon Nimmo-Smith that is marked by big winds), it’s a vexing little spell that’s created.

And though the company name Spooky Action refers to an Einstein principle, it’s fitting here too simply in indicating eeriness.

“The River” plays through Feb. 26 at Spooky Action Theater, Washington, D.C.


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