RIVER DITTY: An American Folktale of Generational Violence and Bigotry – A World Premiere by VirginiaRep
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage, 114 W Broad St, Richmond, VA 23220
Performances: April 20-May 6, 2018
Ticket Prices: $30-50*
Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org
It starts on a train and it soon becomes apparent that none of the riders have paid their fare. It’s 1892, in an America that has been romanticized by Mark Twain as the Gilded Age, and two of the main characters are en route from New Orleans to Baltimore, with a life-changing detour in a cabin in Arkansas where they have a scenic view of a river that borders Tennessee.
Subtitled, An American Folktale, Matthew Mooney Keuter’s River Ditty has the allegorical look and rustic feel of a traditional folktale, but like the historical Gilded Age – that period of American history between the 1870s to about 1900 – all that glitters is not gold, and the ugliness and corruption run deep. There are visual hints in Craig Napoliello’s jagged set of diagonally patterned flats that break apart almost as if they are bleeding their characters out onto the stage – and there is blood aplenty. A little wooden cabin provides a haven of warmth and comfort and the unseen river – which would be where the audience is seated – provides the only certain peace.
River Ditty opened with a lot of fanfare and promise. Several years in the making, it made its world premiere here in RVA with Virginia Rep’s Artistic Director Nathaniel Shaw as director, produced in collaboration with the London-based Glass Half Full Productions, support from the Muriel McAuley Fund for New Plays and Contemporary Theater, and a powerhouse cast, including Katrinah Carol Lewis, Matt Polson, Alexander Sapp, and Scott Wichmann. Director Nathaniel Shaw and author Matthew Mooney Keuter are siblings who worked closely on the concept and execution of River Ditty. But somewhere between concept and execution, someone forgot to clear up the confusion, and maybe it was just me, but there seemed to be plenty of it.
If I had not seen or heard a pre-show promo video and podcast, it would have taken me an inordinate amount of time to figure out that the loving interracial couple, Sunshine (Katrinah Carol Lewis) and Arlo (Matt Polson) are brother and sister and not lovers. And that Lily (Wendy Carter) is Atticus Dye’s (Bostin Christopher) baby mama, and apparently the sometime madam of his “gentlemen’s establishment,” but is she also his wife? And if so, why is he planning to go after Sunshine, and whose runaway bride exactly is she? Oh, and why, because I seemed to have missed it, did Atticus Dye (who seems to be the only character who has a last name) kill his own brother, whose wife was Sunshine’s mother? But wait, wouldn’t that make Sunshine and Arlo cousins rather than siblings? None of these questions was ever really answered for me.
If you are fine with a little confusion and ambiguity, there is plenty else to like, admire, or be challenged by. River Ditty is emotionally heart-wrenching and filled with human and historical insights. The rangy Jonathan Brent Burgard delivers an awesome performance as Harlan. His monosyllabic grunts become a running joke; his awkward posture and obvious lack of social experience become endearing; and his human insight and unwavering loyalty are the stuff of which legends – and folktales – are made. Harlan’s friend Owen (Alexander Sapp) is simultaneously a comic rube and a sensitive, insightful artist. Scott Wichmann is almost unrecognizable as Harlan’s train robbing father, Toe. (The reason for the moniker is one of the best running jokes of many.) Wichmann also revealed another little-known talent – the train version of sea-legs; he has mastered the swaying motion of a moving train while standing on a flat stage. And then there is Arlo – innocent and oblivious, and in need of protection from his sister, even as he shelters her. Arlo is a dreamer and writer of children’ stories, because, as Frederick Douglass, whom he is fond of quoting, would say, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” There are a lot of broken people in this play. There’s also racism, misogyny, and homophobia – the latter unspoken but unmistakable. There’s even a discussion about guns and why we need them and make them which seems particularly contemporary and relevant.
But even as we begin to understand the characters’ motivations, the nature of their relationships remains unclear and since this was central to the play, this was a problem for me. Sue Griffin’s turn of the century costumes were accurately detailed, as usual. B.J. Wilkinson’s lighting and Derek Dumais’ sound designs were subtly complementary, and recorded music by Red Tail Ring (vocals, banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle) had some audience members bouncing and swaying down the aisle on the way to their seats.
A lot of time, attention, and detail went into A River Ditty, and I was disappointed that I was underwhelmed by the total effect. In all fairness, the show one sees on opening night often bears little resemblance to the show one sees later in the run, but to paraphrase Arlo, you can’t just unmake it.
* Expanded Ticket Information:
Box Office 804-282-2620
Full Price Tickets: $30 – $50
Discounted Group Rates and Rush tickets available.
U-Tix for college and high school students $15. Available by phone or in person, day of show only. Valid Student ID required.
** Performance Schedule:
Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Wednesdays and every Thursday
Evening performances at 8:00 p.m. every Friday and Saturday
Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. on select Wednesdays and Saturdays and every Sunday
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Jason Collins Photography
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