Brian Prather

To the Fishing Cabin

Review of The River, TheaterWorks

Sigmund Freud called it “repetition compulsion,” the psychological condition of having to repeat a traumatic event. It may involve revisiting the place where the event occurred, or trying to recreate a situation through specific actions. A popular depiction of the condition can be seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly praised film Vertigo. That film might come to mind when watching Jez Butterworth’s fascinating and mysterious play The River, now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero.

The setting—a fishing cabin “on the cliffs, above the river” in some out-of-the-way English dell—finds a suitable rustic charm in Brian Prather’s handsome set. It’s a homey place for The Man (Billy Carter) because he’s been coming there to fish for sea trout since he was a boy when his uncle was “the man” on the place. As the play opens we get one of those nice jolts that maintaining the fourth wall can still deliver. The Woman (Andrea Goss) is looking right out over the audience in TheaterWorks’ intimate space. She’s gazing raptly at a gorgeous sunset, and tries to entice The Man to share in the moment. “I’ve seen it,” he says, fussing with his gear for the big fishing trip, then proceeds to describe the sky with fulsome words, without looking, and creates a verbal painting.

The Woman (Andrea Goss), The Man (Billy Carter) in TheaterWorks’ production of The River

The Woman (Andrea Goss), The Man (Billy Carter) in TheaterWorks’ production of The River

He’s got a knack for poeticizing, and at one point, trying to convince The Woman she needs to be a part of his fishing expedition, he asks her to read a Ted Hughes poem from a book. She, on the other hand, would rather stay in the cabin and read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. At that point we might be afraid, indeed. “They’re going to the lighthouse, will they get there?,” she asks, half-facetiously. And then the pair go fishing, but what happens?

Butterworth, for all that he might be writing this play tongue-in-cheek, has taken on an interesting assignment: how to convey obsession, loss, hope, love, and the playfulness of seduction while maintaining the mystery of such experiences? All the while keeping the glory of fishing—and the nature of sea trout has its metaphoric application—before us as, well, what it’s like to try to catch something wild and fleeting.

The Man (Billy Carter), The Woman (Andrea Goss)

The Man (Billy Carter), The Woman (Andrea Goss)

We might begin to think—after we meet The Other Woman—we’re in a Gothic story, a kind of Bluebeard-as-fishing-story that will reveal some awful truth about a serial killer. That would be a blunter version of what Butterworth offers. Instead, we’re contemplating something almost as off-putting: serial seduction, the strange-to-relate way that a search for true love—or an effort to recapture a previous moment—involves a set script. All we need to do is find the right actor for the part we’ve written in our heads.

That might sound like a very dark play, and in some ways it is. The brooding tone is leavened by the characters of the women. As The Woman, Andrea Goss is slyly mocking at times, apt to fear that The Man has plans more romantic than she’s prepared to accept. The Other Woman is played by Jasmine Batchelor as even more engaging, enough to make us think she may be “the One” after all. She brings a winning outlook to her match with The Man, even if she does catch a fish by a method forbidden in his code.

The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor), The Man (Billy Carter)

The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor), The Man (Billy Carter)

The Man could be a crashing bore, so set in his ways, but Billy Carter—in a role that Hugh Jackman played on Broadway—keeps us guessing about his motivations and where his heart really lies. He can be taciturn as well as rhapsodic. And he has to gut a fish on stage if only so we can watch him interact with his favorite species. He’s deliberate, almost devout. Later, he draws The Other Woman’s portrait with a similar concentration. The play asks us to see him as the women do: as someone who attracts interest but who also seems to hold others at bay, which only adds to his allure. His manliness may be the theme most at issue here, a studied self-sufficiency that requires a certain elusiveness in his prey, and his bride.

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

Every date between strangers is a kind of try out, we might suppose, but The River keeps an archly archetypal quality in play. A few oddities—like a scene about a bird getting into the cabin that plays the same for both women, each told “it’s happened before”—keep us guessing, waiting for a reveal that makes all the pieces fit. And fitting oneself to someone else is what successful romance is all about. 

Director Rob Ruggiero keeps the tension palpable, and the sound effects in Frederick Kennedy’s sound design, including a subtly hypnotic song, add an eeriness. The River makes the most of the scenic quality of theater, so that each new scene, playing with our sense of how narrative unfolds, establishes a static moment without a clear relation to before and after. It’s “the still point of the turning world,” while it lasts.

  

The River
By Jez Butterworth
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Associate Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Dialect Coach: Johanna Morrison

Cast: Jasmine Batchelor, Billy Carter, Andrea Goss

 TheaterWorks
October 4-November 11, 2018

A Hard Hit

Review of Playing the Assassin at Hartford’s TheaterWorks

Not often do the words “profound” and “football” find their way into the same sentence. Yet TheaterWorks’ current production of David Robson’s Playing the Assassin, directed by Joe Brancato, brings to light profoundly searching questions about football and the other contact sports so central to much of American entertainment and big business. In the context of a gripping conflict between two men, the play asks, in the words of one of its characters, why “seeing grown men hurt each other” makes people “happy,” and what that means for NFL professionals, trained and encouraged to hit as hard as they can, but excoriated and ostracized if they cause serious injury.

As Robson tells us in the program notes, the play was inspired by an obituary headline: “Jack Tatum, Whose Tackle Paralyzed Player, Dies at 61.” In 1978, Tatum, playing for the Oakland Raiders, hit wide receiver Darryl Stingley, of the New England Patriots, so hard that Stingley was paralyzed from the neck down. In Playing the Assassin, Robson creates a similar situation and asks us to decide whose life was most damaged. The answer, we learn, is as complex as the human heart.

Lewis (Garrett Lee Hendricks) and Frank Baker (Ezra Knight)

Lewis (Garrett Lee Hendricks) and Frank Baker (Ezra Knight)

Frank Baker (the extraordinary Ezra Knight), a former NFL safety once known as the most dangerous defensive player in the league, meets in a hotel room with a CBS executive named Lewis (the sharp and shape-shifting Garrett Lee Hendricks) to prepare for a publicity stunt. Lewis has brokered a reunion, to be aired before the Super Bowl, between Baker and Lyle Turner, the player paralyzed by Baker’s tackle twenty years before. Their first encounter since the accident promises an up-tick in Super Bowl viewing numbers. “It’s a great human interest story,” says the smooth-talking Lewis.

Baker, however, has well-founded doubts. Years of interviews have taught him that after the initial gush over his NFL fame, the real question is always “So how do you feel about that guy you paralyzed?” Baker knows his legacy will be that he stepped over the invisible line (as he calls it) between doing what one is trained to do and perpetrating an act of violence. “Show me the line,” Baker insists, “Show me the line!” —his defiance barely masking twenty years of torment about the incident.

Lewis remains business-like for as long as he can, but soon (under the pressure, we assume, of Baker’s good-natured bullying and angry obstinance) his nerves begin to fray. In a series of surprises that have audiences audibly gasping, the stakes rise, masks drop, and the supposed pre-interview chat, with its multiple revelations, nearly veers into Greek drama.

If perhaps the number of revelations asks of us just a bit too much suspension of disbelief, Joe Brancato’s expert direction and the remarkable performances of Knight and Hendricks enable the production to glide over our doubts. Brancato controls the pacing (at a taut 82 minutes) so that, as the characters alternate trust and distrust, their lies and truths are sharply delineated. The tension relaxes only in brief humorous moments before tightening again. A director’s hand should be invisible, and Brancato’s is; only afterwards, when we sit back in our chairs for the first time, do we realize his powerful skill.

Knight and Hendricks execute this pacing to perfection. Knight, in the showier role of Baker, creates a bull of a man who uses his bulk to entertain, manipulate, intimidate, and threaten. At the same time, Knight has the difficult task of embodying someone at once strong and broken. For all his energy, Baker describes himself as “a walking Walgreens.” Knight, playing every emotional key from jocular to murderous, is astounding in making us feel both the danger and the damage.

Hendricks matches Knight in physical and emotional virtuosity, providing the perfect counterpart. Slim where Baker is bulky, graceful where Baker is rambunctious, Lewis knows exactly what moves to make in order to close the deal—until he doesn’t. Hendricks’ Lewis has to contain many layers, and to keep the audience unaware of most of them until late in the action. A few of the script’s most startling moments verge on melodrama, but Hendricks keeps the character of Lewis believable and quietly charismatic.

Set designer Brian Prather deserves special praise for creating a hotel room that is at once realistically tony, increasingly cage-like, and ultimately red-hot when long-held rage is finally released. In many respects, this two-hander is perfect for TheaterWorks and the intimate space enables the audience to see every small object along with every muscle twitch and eye movement. Playing the Assassin delivers expert and compelling theater that deserves to be experienced more than once.

With its strong performances, timely themes, and taut, physical production, Playing the Assassin is a winner!

Playing the Assassin
By David Robson
Directed by Joe Brancato

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Charlotte Palmer-Lane; Lighting Design: Ed McCarthy; Sound Design: Emily Auciello; Fight Choreographer: Ron Piretti; Production Manager: C. Nikki Mills; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

TheaterWorks, March 21-April 26, 2015