Nakai Theatre’s production of The River is nothing like its namesake.
Rivers are linear – they flow from one place to another.
But Nakai’s current production gets caught in back eddies.
It all begins in the hallway outside the Yukon Arts Centre’s studio theatre.
There are stacks of chairs – the vessel of choice for navigating The River.
Everyone is expected to grab one and sit where they want, somewhere around the circular ring of crushed glass and river rocks that separate the stage from the audience.
Breaking the bonds of traditional theatre, Nakai’s actors sit among us, waiting until the lights dim and a woman in stylized street clothes enters the circle.
Her clothes are chic-ratty, her veins are outlined in black marker and she’s listening to an iPod.
The next man onstage also has prominent veins, fur-bound boots, and a sleeping bag cape with a built-in plastic cover.
This is Vogue homeless, or something from an old Star Trek episode.
It’s not what you see on the streets of Whitehorse.
Simple black hoodies, worn jeans and winter parkas would have made a more powerful statement.
The River is supposed to be about Whitehorse.
The script was inspired by Yukon stories from the fringe.
“There are stories …,” are the first words out of the caped, homeless man’s mouth, played by Toronto actor Wayne Ward.
There are stories about missing aboriginal women.
There are stories about homeless men who spend time on the banks of the Yukon River and party on the clay cliffs.
There are stories about a young girl who works at Super A and gets mixed up with a questionable crowd.
And there are stories about a single mother who lives in Lobird Trailer Court and is regularly abducted by aliens.
These stories pique our interest.
They have potential.
What happens to the girl from the Super A when she meets the young homeless First Nation man by the river?
What do they do in the rundown yellow tent?
Why are there aliens in Lobird?
If The River had any current it could have carried the audience through this complex and thoughtful narrative.
But almost immediately, the script drowns in unnecessary, self-indulgent monologues.
None of the characters talk to each other.
And it’s not clear why.
The five professional actors, brought in from Outside, have the chops to carry on an engaging exchange.
But they never get the chance.
Only once do two actors, Ward and Ayma Letang, briefly interact onstage – it’s the most memorable and compelling part of the production.
Each of the actors is tasked with playing multiple characters … it seems.
But there are no clear shifts from one role to another, which leads to more confusion.
As scenes change, an electric charge zaps and buzzes through the theatre’s sound system.
The characters double over in pain.
It’s a charged, empty demarcation, also unexplained.
As the monologues continue, circling from one unrecognizable character to another, it’s hard to remain engaged.
When an actor mentions schizophrenia, the audience can suddenly sympathizes because the whole play comes across this way.
There are also technical issues.
Because it’s performed in the round, actors often have their backs to sections of the audience – a problem easily remedied by having performers move as they speak.
But many of the monologues are static, and if you’re sitting with a rearview, it seldom changes.
Still, there are some lovely images.
At one point, a young homeless man uses river rocks to create the Big Dipper on the floor as he speaks.
Played by Telly James, it’s a strong performance born from a weak script.
Vancouver-based actor Barbara Pollard, who plays a seemingly innocuous older woman learning to use internet chat rooms, delivers most of her lines from a chair in the audience.
Pollard makes a suitable Yukon tourist, but when her malevolent side materializes, it’s hard to grasp her motivation – it’s not in the script.
As the alien abductee, Six-Nations’ actor Falen Johnson is a bit too pained in her performance.
It’s Ward, Letang and James who carry the show.
In one nice moment, James traces his shadow on the black stage using a handful of sand.
“We’re shadow people,” he says.
The River is about these marginalized outcasts.
And it sets out to tell their stories.
It’s is a noble idea.
And it’s worth pursuing.
But the missing narrative thread destroys The River’s flow.
And the script is as confused as the young homeless man who’s so high his “head is like a hospital.”
It touches on women trading sex for cab rides.
It references the “invisible clans up the hill” living in Kwanlin Dun’s village.
It alludes to the unsolved mystery surrounding Angel Carlick’s death.
It even talks about the mismanaged explosion that sent rocks raining down on Lobird during the Hamilton Boulevard extension.
But the script’s inability to articulate these stories leaves them as invisible as the marginalized characters it sets out to portray.
At one point a characters says: “You need to figure out what you’re looking for or you’ll never find it.”
It’s something The River’s co-writers Judith Rudakoff, David Skelton and Joseph Tisiga, should take to heart.
The River runs Tuesday through Saturday until May 1.
The April 28 show is at the Salvation Army and is by invitation only.
There are matinees April 29, 30 and only a matinee on May 1.
Contact Genesee Keevil at