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Walking Shadow struggles with an awkward script

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A man and a woman, lovers, are playfully bantering onstage. The woman says, “Tell me about... the first fish you ever caught.”

Open Eye Figure Theatre
$26; a limited number of $10 tickets; Sept. 6 performance is pay-as-able

At this point, you might lean forward with anticipation — or you might go cross-eyed with boredom. If your reaction might be the latter, beware of jumping into Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s The River. It’s the regional premiere of a 2012 play by Jez Butterworth, who wrote a script so thick with metaphor and monologue that it’s as if he was trying to supply a fresh practice piece for every drama student in the U.K.

Butterworth is British, but director Amy Rummenie’s cast sticks with American accents. This makes many lines land oddly, especially the ones involving Anglicisms. That’s particularly a liability given that Butterworth’s dialogue is forced and stagy to begin with. Really, when was the last time you dropped a half-dozen similes in a single anecdote?

Most of the talk, symbolic and otherwise, involves fly fishing. That’s the great preoccupation of the unnamed Man (Andrew Erskine Wheeler) who invites a similarly moniker-averse Woman (Emily Grodzik) up to his cabin to land a few trout and to fool around... excuse me, “make love.”

It turns out that this wordy weekend getaway package isn’t an exclusive deal: There’s an Other Woman (Elizabeth Efteland), who’s seen in alternating scenes as we slowly discover which Woman came first and what implications that has for her counterpart’s relationship with the Man.

Set designer Steve Kath, sound artist Katharine Horowitz, and lighting designer Paola Rodriguez have certainly done their part to give these characters an amenable environment in which to have their heady exchanges. Open Eye Figure Theatre’s small stage has been transformed into a rustic cabin kitchen with detail and depth, chirping crickets, and water gurgling all around.

Casting and direction choices, though, undermine the plausibility of this asynchronous ménage à trois. Wheeler’s Man feels fussy and pathetic from the opening scene, as he fumbles around in his waders ignoring Grodzik and prattling on about his fishing accessories. Speaking with a strange, academic affect — like a librarian from Middle Earth — Wheeler has none of the mojo we need to sense if we’re to believe that a succession of bright, attractive young women are seduced by his pretentious preoccupations.

Early on, the Woman declares she won’t go night-fishing with the Man: She’s already sunburned from casting lines all day. He says he’ll accept her refusal — as long as she reads a Ted Hughes fishing poem first, aloud. She makes a quiet “hmph,” and he’s of course offended, but when I imagine what sound most women I know would have made in that situation, I think it would have been a hell of a lot worse.

The River
Walking Shadow Theatre Company
at Open Eye Theatre
506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis
612-375-0300; through September 17