Wednesday, November 4, 2015


The Coal Mine opened its second season this week with a captivating and assured production of  British playwright, Jez Butterworth's Broadway and West End hit, THE RIVER.

It's an enigmatic text, and director Ted Dykstra and his talented cast make a meal (literally and figuratively) of both its lyricism and constant shifts in mood.

The company has decided to forgo British accents, and set the play in Canada. I was a bit taken aback at first, but it proves a workable choice.

The  Man (David Ferry), middle aged, still attractive, likes to fish; no, he's passionate about fishing. It's in his blood, he learned from his uncle. He goes regularly to his uncle's former cottage, a rustic place in the woods, beside a river noted for its supply of  highly desirable and elusive sea trout.

The man likes to have company on these excursions:  female company.

Near the beginning of the play, the man's current female house guest (Jane Spidell) tries to persuade him to come with her to watch the sunset over the river.  The man is focused on preparing his fishing kit:  the best fishing takes place after dark, on a moonless night. He wearily declines, describing, in exquisitely poetic terms, the Turner sky he's missing.

The man is no philistine: he draws, he reads poetry, he's a skilled cook, he likes Cole Porter. There's whiskey in the cupboard, but wine for the dinner table. It's easy to see why women find him, and the chance to spend a weekend with him, well, alluring.

A lure is a kind of mechanical bait, designed to attract and capture a specific kind of fish.

David Ferry is in top form, playing the audience like a master angler: notching up and releasing tension, as he reels us into the world of a beguiling and slippery character.

As the Woman, Jane Spidell  is clearly drawn in by his charms, almost in spite of herself. In her role as a single, middle-aged woman early on in a courtship, Spidell is a marvel of defenses and vulnerability, letting the audience see the chinks in her armour appear, then vanish, as she lets down and raises her guard.When she speaks about her childhood, she makes palpable the pain of the damaged, neglected girl who became this brittle woman.

At one point, the woman disappears through a door, and the Other Woman (a sylvan and coquettish Dani Kind) appears: younger, more relaxed, flirtatious, confident. Is she past or present?A muse or a delusion?  Who is playing who?

The play takes place indoors: a domestic enclave, but one with strong auditory and visual suggestions of the natural world beyond the doors; the sound of a rushing river, light flickering through the branches of the woodland trees.

Water is a powerful element in the play, both reflecting beauty and concealing danger, outdoors and within. A knife floats in a dirty dish tub, a metal basin becomes a reflecting pool. This is what middle aged love affairs really feel like: sexually charged, potentially dangerous; fraught, delicate and uncertain.

The set and lighting by Steve Lucas and sound by Creighton Doane are note-perfect. Ming Wong's costumes are nuanced, underscoring the differences in characters and the shifts in mood.

The intimate space places the audience right in the middle of the courtships. There were moments of such arresting intimacy, that I found myself holding my breath.

Butterworth is less interested in answering questions than he is in exploring them. Dykstra and his talented cast have the courage to allow that to happen.

 The RIVER hooked me and didn't let me go.  Days later, I found myself  thinking about the turning points in the relationships onstage and in my own, long ago.

Coalmine Theatre has relocated into temporary digs east of their former home, beside the Only Cafe, in a converted storefront. The company receives no government funding and the space they've created is tight, but remarkably effective, a cosy and functional conversion of a former store into a performance venue.

For one thing, they've built risers, meaning that the sight lines are pretty good.  This, as many theatre-going die-hards can tell you, is not the case with many of the smaller, independent venues in town.

Slip down and see THE RIVER.  It's a trip you won't soon forget.

The RIVER continues until November 22 at the Coalmine Theatre's temporary location: 982 Danforth, just steps west of Donlands subway station.  Performances take place from Tuesday until Sunday, at 7:30 pm nightly for further information.

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