Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – All the human necessities are gathered under one roof in “The River,” an hourlong mystery about love, life and trout.
An outdoorsman has taken his new girlfriend to his rustic cabin to share his passion for fly fishing. The biggest mystery may start when you open your program. What are you getting into with characters called The Man and The Woman and The Other Woman?
That’s the first clue that Quantum Theatre and “The River” belong together, both being vessels for daring ideas that defy expectations. And, this being Quantum, the venue is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
When “The River” traveled from London to Broadway, Hugh Jackman took over for Dominic West as The Man who loves fishing and woman. That production played inland, at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square Theatre. For its arrival in Pittsburgh, Quantum has brought “The River” in tight with the water’s edge by transforming a building in Aspinwall Riverfront Park.
One end of an existing structure has been built out to suggest the interior of a rustic cabin, with the backdrop, as seen through picture windows, a long view of the Allegheny River and the Highland Park Bridge.
“For me, there’s no journey to this space that isn’t magical, no matter where you are coming from,” said director Adil Mansoor.
He has been getting a feel for Aspinwall by visiting nearby cafes and listening to chatter about the theatrical interlopers who have put out their “Q” shingle.
“I feel like Quantum has become this mystery to Aspinwall, the same way this play unfolds,” he said.
The makeshift venue not only sits beside a river — a river runs through it. The stage is split by a winding well of water designed by Britton Mauk, making the magic realism of Jez Butterworth’s script tangible for actors Smith, Siovhan Christensen and Daina Michelle Griffith.
“It makes every step metaphorical,” Mr. Smith observed. “Which side am I on? How can I cross this river? How can I do so without letting the other person know I am crossing the river?”
Every move has been choreographed, which is why “an hourlong play is getting the rehearsal time of a 2½-hour full-length, and I think we are going to use every minute we have,” Mr. Smith said.
This production marks his first in Pittsburgh. His family moved from New York in 2014 when he took a job as an assistant professor of acting at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. He previously acted on stage, film and television on both coasts and is the founding co-artistic director of New York’s Project Y Theatre Company, which supports the development of new works.
While Mr. Smith is playing a restrained man of mystery for Quantum Theatre, his wife, actress Lisa Velten Smith, is working on the South Side as an out-of-control mom in the madcap comedy “Hand to God” at City Theatre.
In contrast, “The River” is determinedly prosaic, built for intrigue and subject to debate.
“This is the type of play where an audience will have one impression, and their neighbor will have a different impression, and they both will be right,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s a complex mystery, and we want to embrace that.”
To say even a little about the interplay between the man and the women onstage is to say too much. Mr. Smith painted a picture in broad strokes, saying, “It’s a play about the complexity and the nuance and the challenge of love.”
To this, artistic director Karla Boos, seated nearby, offered a decisive, “Exactly,” but Mr. Smith took it a few steps further.
“It’s also about how our past gets in the way, how our dreams of the future get in the way, but yet we are overcome — that striving for love starts at the beginning and goes through to the end, despite every obstacle. It’s relentless and it’s passionate and it’s specific and it’s smart and it wraps in a lot of education …”
Within his hour onstage, the teacher spends quite a bit of time in a show-and-tell about fly fishing. The “show” involves gutting — correction, “It’s dressing,” Mr. Smith said — a real fish live onstage every night.
When Mr. Smith auditioned for the role, his director didn’t know that the actor was a fisherman. “I was so relieved!” said Mr. Mansoor, who feared he would have to learn to prepare the fish and teach an actor how to do it.
He and Mr. Smith agreed that using a real fish is essential.
“To talk about fish with passion the way you do,” the director said to Mr. Smith, “we want to see a real one. We want to see blood. It’s also how we eat. There’s nothing weird about it. As I’ve been learning more and more about trout fishing, it’s catch and release. And that’s not what happens here. And that’s ..,” he stopped himself, before he said too much.
“And that,” he concluded, “is part of the mystery.”