A hitchhiker (Klara Wojtkowska GRD ’13) thumbs for a ride on the highway. A heroin addict (Lila Ann Millberry Dodge GRD ’14) shoots up, screams profanities and coos with pleasure. A male soldier (Cosima Cabrera ’14) raves about killing men, women and children in Iraq.
All of this, within the first seven minutes.
What is “the river don’t flow by itself no more”? It consists of a continuous stream of stories from different people who — for better or for worse — interact with an unspecified part of the Mexican-American border. In the midst of these wandering humans is Coyote (Ari Fernandez ’15), a guardian who waits for the mythical Desert Prophets to save the land.
I admit that the play’s nonsensical start led me to think that I was about to watch one of those shows that is so caught up in its artsy-ness that it forgets to say anything meaningful. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that wasn’t the case here. Wojtkowska, also the director and playwright, is a large reason for why this potential mess makes sense. She constructs the dialogue with spoken-word sensibility; her characters shout onomatopoeia, conjure vivid stories, ramble with their world-weary philosophy and mix real life with symbolism. At first, all of this craziness will go through your ears like boiling hot water. But soon you’ll find that each word works to create a layered commentary on humans and the borders — both external and internal — that we make.
The strip of highway that dominates the stage is the barrier that separates countries and people. In the course of the play, actors playing multiple characters — a common theatrical device made into a thematic one here — demonstrate the ineffectiveness of borders. For example, Ronald Apuzzo’s character becomes, among many things, a border patrol officer and a giggling schizophrenic. And Luz Lopez ’16 jumps the gender line by playing a male ex-Mormon who has sex with strippers and smuggles immigrants. Bit by bit, the personal borders dissolve until the characters’ stories collapse into collective loneliness, fearfulness and insanity.
The play’s bizarreness easily lends itself to ironic humor, even though the humor is more successful at highlighting human absurdities than producing laughter. In one instance, the murderous soldier insists that “hitchhiking is illegal in this country” and that he “is a law-abiding citizen.” The oddness translates into set pieces that aren’t extravagant, but rather simple and effective in conjuring up a Mexican-American border marked by bareness and a history of violence. Vacant shoes nearly blot out the river — blue chalk outlines drawn onto the stage — as if the disappeared and the dead haunt the water itself.
In the midst of this surreal world, Fernandez stands out as Coyote. She may not be overly expressive, but her optimistic eyes and her attempts to connect with people through her lollipop, her colorful chalk and her smile really make her endearing. It’s sad, then, when we notice how she witnesses more and more of the human madness and pain.
“the river don’t flow by itself no more” is a play of effective mixtures: of the strange and the familiar, of the political and the personal. Within the screaming, random musical numbers and simple characters lies an understanding of human yearning. It is also, as Wojtkowska states in the program and manifesto, an anti-play. But even as it avoids coherent narration or even a satisfactory conclusion in its crackpot space, it never forgets the turmoil of the real world. It becomes that turmoil.