With Don’t Go Down to the River, JIG theatrecompany has created a compelling and dark homegrown mystery, but the minimalist one-woman show format they utilize undermines the power of the world built by the narrative.
Under the guise of showing her house off to potential buyers, Grace Shaw relates the dark history of her family and their home, River Reach. We learn of her father, who made his fortune in explosives and built a great house on the banks of the Ottawa River, her mother who became a (fictional) Canadian poet of some renown, the series of fires that beset the small estate, and the mysterious disappearance of her adopted 15-year old sister. Also, Grace might be a ghost.
The text for this show really is impressive – it conjures up the spirit of a time when Ottawa was a backwoods frontier town, with references to Grace’s brother’s new wife preferring the high society of Montreal or Toronto to Ottawa’s paltry offerings, and hearing the sound of her father’s team of horses coming up the drive. The family history is built up right from the beginning, and the relations that start out simply become quite complex by the climactic Halloween party where her adopted sister Lizzie disappears.
What this show is missing is a strong visual component: the family history is told through a tour of the house, with verbal descriptions being the main source of information as to what the house looks like and how it is laid out. Some hand gestures help too, like when Grace looks out from the second-floor balcony and points out the features of the yard. All this goes by too quickly however, for the Halloween party segment: Grace recalls how she was on the balcony and saw where everyone was before the barn fire that distracted them, but the list of persons and locations goes by too quickly to retain (that she refers to the guests by their literary Halloween costumes rather than their names adds to this confusion). Some visual component, or more creative usage of space, would allow for the audience to retain this information rather than struggle to figure it out. Projections are one possibility, or a location-based performance, but any rate a text that integrates space into the story on such a fundamental level requires a stronger visual element than this production offers. What is on stage is a chair, a pair of binoculars for the balcony segment, some books that Grace “re-shelves” when in the library, and a vase of twigs for the front hall. The minimalist production doesn’t work as well with a richly-imagined text that uses archival and verbatim materials to create a vivid step back in time.
Don’t Go Down to the River is a fantastic text that could use a more developed production, at least as far as its usage of space is concerned. The final twist – that the mystery remains unsolved, and it’s up to the audience to figure it out – would work much better if the audience were able to note down the clues throughout the narrative that would make finding the solution possible. Though the script is strong, this production doesn’t really do it any favours.
Don’t Go Down to the River
A JIG theatrecompany production
Written and Performed by Jessica Gardiner
At ODD Box (Venue 4)
Running Time: 60 minutes
Saturday 17 June 5:30pm
Sunday 18 June 5:00pm