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David Ferry as The Man and Jane Spidell as The Woman have a relationship involving dishonesty and evasion in The River.

MICHAEL COOPER/Coal Mine Theatre

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Jez Butterworth
Directed by
Ted Dykstra
Actors
David Ferry, Dani Kind, Jane Spidell
Venue
The Coal Mine
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Sunday, November 22, 2015

In Abyss, the enigmatic German play seen at Tarragon Theatre last winter, actress Sarah Sherman memorably recited step-by-step instructions for killing and skinning a rabbit. In Jez Butterworth's equally enigmatic The River, opening the Coal Mine Theatre's second season, actor David Ferry does her one better. He cleans, guts and cooks a real fish onstage.

If you sit in the front row of the Coal Mine's tiny theatre, a storefront venue on Toronto's Danforth Avenue, you'll get a close-up view of Ferry as he nimbly beheads and eviscerates a glistening silver trout while an instrumental version of Cole Porter's I've Got You Under My Skin plays wryly in the background. Then he douses the fish with wine and slides it into the oven. When it emerges later, baked and succulent, the space is filled with its aroma. As it turns out, that culinary interlude may be the one reliably real thing in this beautiful, slippery and unnerving little play.

Ferry's character, the Man, is a fly fisherman who has come to his uncle's old cabin to catch wild sea trout. In the first scene, he's preparing to head out for some night fishing, but his girlfriend, the Woman (Jane Spidell), wants to hang back and read Virginia Woolf. To beguile her, the Man gets her to instead read aloud from Ted Hughes's fishing poem After Moonless Midnight.

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That may be the first hint as to where the play is going. Hughes was a celebrated nature poet, but also a lifelong womanizer blamed by some for driving his first wife, poet Sylvia Plath, to suicide. When the Woman sees his name on the poetry book, she gives a derisive little snort.

The next scene is a jarring contrast in which we find the distraught Man frantically making a cellphone call to the police to report a missing woman. But then she appears at the cabin door – only it's a different girlfriend, the Other Woman (Dani Kind). She got lost and came upon a poacher, who shared a spliff with her and helped her catch a trout.

As the play progresses, Butterworth continues to pull this sleight of hand; we never know which woman is going to enter the cabin in each succeeding scene. And as we see the Man interact with the women, treating each in turn as his one true love, themes of honesty and trust emerge. Also questions: Are these relationships happening concurrently or at different times in the Man's life? If the latter case, did one of the women die?

But even as we fish for clues, Butterworth himself beguiles us with poetry; both with that of others – Yeats's The Song of Wandering Aengus runs as a leitmotif through the play – and with his own. The British playwright and screenwriter, who wrote the Tony Award-nominated Jerusalem and co-wrote the new Bond film Spectre, gives free rein to his lyrical side here. There are metaphors that could have been lifted from Shelley and other descriptions that recall the vivid simplicity of Hemingway's fishing idyll Big Two-Hearted River.

The Coal Mine, which made an explosive debut last season with Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherfucker With the Hat, has had to temporarily leave its snug underground theatre because of renovations. The River is being presented in a ground-level retail space that may be even smaller than the company's original location. That's fine by me, especially for a play that deals with emotional intimacy. And, with this production, you also get chance to really study the artistry of some excellent performers.

Ferry, taking on a role first played by Dominic West (The Wire) in London in 2012, and then by Hugh Jackman on Broadway last year, projects the same rugged-but-sensitive masculinity as those stars. He's a shrewd and subtle actor and it's a treat to watch him at such close proximity, where you can see even the smallest flicker of thought cross his face.

Spidell and Kind are just as fascinating. As the Woman, Spidell is at once sturdy and vulnerable, turning skittish when it comes to making an emotional commitment. Kind's Other Woman is more teasing and relaxed, but there's a powerful scene in which she confronts the Man over not looking her in the eye during sex.

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Both relationships depicted here involve dishonesty and evasion, on the part of the women as well as the Man. He speaks admiringly of how fly fishing involves catching fish by creating an artful illusion, and the implication is that men and women are no less prone to deceptive lures.

Director Ted Dykstra's staging makes a virtue of the venue's coziness– we feel we're inside that cabin with the characters. Steve Lucas's set has all the right rustic details and his lighting evokes the enveloping dark of country nights.

The River reminds you of that quote from Heraclitus emblazoned on the Queen Street Viaduct: "This river I step in is not the river I stand in." It's a play whose changing nature makes it impossible to pin down. But if you're up for some mental angling, it offers plenty of ideas and allusions just waiting to be caught.

The River continues to Nov. 22 at the Coal Mine's temporary location, 982 Danforth Ave., Toronto (brownpapertickets.com).

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