to some new world. If only all playwrights began as poets—as did San Francisco’s Marisela Treviño Orta—then all of our stages would be singing with poetry as beautiful as that in Orta’s rich fairytale ‘The River Bride,’ which just opened a five-month run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The festival, which runs annually from February to November, always begins in the Spring with four shows, gradually adding new ones. The openers this time are Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night,’ Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Yeomen of the Guard,’ Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations,’ and ‘The River Bride.’
I’ll discuss the first three in my next broadcast.
Easily the best of a strong batch, ‘The River Bride’ was first staged in San Rafael in 2014, part of the AlterLab new play development program sponsored by Marin County’s AlterTheater Ensemble. Originally co-directed by Ann Brebner and Jeanette Harrison, that early production was elegantly simple, using only a few wooden blocks as set pieces. In Ashland, Orta’s slinky, sexy blend of Brazilian river mythology and Grimm’s fairytales has now been given a magical, deceptively high-tech makeover by director Laurie Woolery, working with a stellar cast and a first-rate team of visual artists. Woolery fills her stage with gorgeous images, each scene a poem in its own right, a stunning collage of sight, sound, words and emotion.
Fortunately, such bedazzlements never distract from the story, or from the incandescent heart of Orta’s indelible characters.
Just three days before the wedding of 16-year-old Belmira and the local fisherman Duarte, the bride’s older sister Helena is doing her best to hide her own broken heart, having loved Duarte since childhood. During a stormy day of fishing, complete with raging thunder and mysterious pink lightning, Duarte and the sisters’ goodhearted father Senhor Costa haul up a well-dressed, unconscious stranger in their fishing nets.
Initially suspicious, Senhora Costa soon welcomes the soft-spoken newcomer, who gives his name as Moises, and almost immediately forms a bond with the cautious, but gradually love-struck, Helena.
As Helena, Nancy Rodriguez, is spectacular, revealing layer upon layer of hidden emotion. Armando McClain, who as Moises makes an art of enigmatically smoldering, is quite good in a part that less expert actors might have played too extravagantly. Jamie Ann Romero is excellent in the tricky part of Belmira, managing to be both innocent and selfishly devious, and as Duarte, Carlo Alban is all coiled intensity and molten jealousy. Triney Sandoval is delightful as Senhor Costa, and Vilma Silva, as Senhora Costa, is perfect, playing as many shades of motherly love as there are strings on a guitar.
What happens next takes place in a world of grounded fantasy and stylized realism. On the Amazon, there are legends of trickster porpoises, which for three days in June take the form of human men, looking for love amongst those who dwell on the land. That myth eventually overlaps the lives of Orta’s characters in powerful ways, as Moises’ courtship of Helena stirs up deep and forbidden passions.
As in all fairytales, the ending involves the breaking of curse, but with a poetic and heart-stopping twist, just one of many satisfying pleasures Orta serves up in this transcendent, one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
‘The River Bride’ runs in repertory with ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘Great Expectations,’ and others, Tuesday through Sunday, in the Angus Bowmer Theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland, Oregon. For information on this and ten other shows opening throughout the year, www.osfashland.org has all the details.
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