By David Templeton
“Love is for the bold! You have to be willing to risk everything!”
So exults Belmira, an impetuous young bride-to-be, in an evocative early scene in Marisela Treviño Orta’s stunning The River Bride. It’s easily the best new show in a strong current batch of four that just opened the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland (where seven more shows will be added throughout the year).
With her line about love and boldness, the flirtatious Belmira is speaking of romance and escape, but she could just as well be describing the artistic risks taken by Orta with her extraordinary script, first staged in San Rafael in 2014, now given a magical makeover in Ashland by director Laurie Woolery, and a first-rate team of theatrical artists.
A slinky blend of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Brazilian river mythology, the play rose from the waters of Orta’s imagination as part of the AlterLab new play development program, an arm of Marin’s award-winning AlterTheater. Co-directed in San Rafael by Ann Brebner and Jeanette Harrison, the original production used only a few wooden blocks as set pieces. In Ashland, Orta’s deeply affecting tale of transformation and heartbreak has itself been transformed, with the use of brilliant projections and ingeniously simple effects that bring the Amazon River and its fishing villages to life while retaining the essential simplicity of the story.
With the wedding of Belmira (a playfully sexy Jamie Ann Romero) and local fisherman Duarte (a coiled and intense Carlo Alban) just three days away, the bride’s older sister Helena (Nancy Rodriguez, spectacular) is doing her best to hide her own broken heart, having loved Duarte since childhood. During a stormy day of fishing, Duarte and the sisters’ goodhearted father Senhor Costa (a delightful Triney Sandoval) haul up their nets to discover that they’ve caught a well-dressed, unconscious stranger named Moises (Armando McClain, who makes an art of enigmatic smoldering). Initially suspicious, Senhora Costa (Vilma Silva, also excellent) so welcomes the sweetly mannered newcomer, who has formed an instant and obvious bond with Helena.
On the Amazon, there are legends of trickster porpoises, who for three days in June take the form of human men, looking for love among those who dwell on the land. This myth, or is it more, overlaps reality in powerful ways as Moises courts Helena, stirring up deep and forbidden passions long hidden within the hearts of Helena’s family and friends.
The cast is uniformly exceptional, and they each expertly straddle the line between fantasy and true emotion. The scenic design by Mariana Sanchez works a similar trick, placing simple set pieces—a wooden dock, a boat, a framed house on stilts—above a glistening splash of watery blue, with a silky curtain behind it all, occasionally opening to show hints of the village and the ocean beyond.
The video design by Mark Holthusen also works wonders, from a glittering sprinkle of stars and the rising and setting of the sun, to the glorious, sometime ripple effect that plays across the whole set, making us wonder if the entire story is no more than a dream itself. Or perhaps only the echo of life-altering love, nearly found, but lost at last in the depths of the river.
NOW PLAYING: The River Bride runs various days and times each week, in repertory with ‘Twelfth Night,’ ‘Great Expectations’ and others, Tuesday through Sunday in the Angus Bowmer Theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon. For information on this and 10 other shows opening throughout the year, visit osfashland.org.