'River Bride' a deep dive into longing, love and loss

Magical realism in literature has long been associated with two rather contradictory qualities. On the one hand, there is the expectation of a realistic tone. On the other, there is the anticipation of fantastical events. Any audience that is open to the often stringent requirements of this historically rich and spiritually evocative genre might be expected to approach it with some trepidation; the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Jorge Luis Borges are as dense and challenging as they are rewarding. 

As such, playwright Marisela Trevino Orta can be very proud of what she has brought to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with the world premiere of “The River Bride.” She has birthed a work of great beauty; a play that is at once transcendent and triumphant. Orta carries, in her very bones, a profound understanding of the history and deep literary legacy within her community.

It is often said that true mastery appears effortless, and that statement bears out in the deceptive simplicity of her work. “The River Bride" is accessible, elegant and poignant, and yet its message will linger, like lost love, for a long while in the hearts and minds of those theater patrons fortunate enough to fall under its spell. 

Set in a small fishing village in Brazil, the play is contained within a sparse environment. Bathed in a silvery blue light, with a backdrop onto which is projected imagery reminiscent of Maxfield Parrish, the scenic design by Mariana Sanchez integrates the action so that the audience feels the power of the ever-present river — that source from which every person in the play draws sustenance.

Into this luminous milieu come two sisters — Helena (Nancy Rodriguez) and Belmira (Jamie Ann Romero), both young women of marrying age. One of the sisters is to be married that very day; the other has long since given up on finding true love. But the plot thickens with the arrival of a mysterious stranger, pulled from the river by the father of the two women. His name is Moises (Armando McClain), and his origins will remain a mystery to the audience until the very last moments of the play. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is something fishy afoot.

The sweet familiarity that is initially evident in the relationship between the two sisters begins to unravel, as one discovers that the other has always been in love with her husband-to-be, Duarte (Carlo Alban). Misunderstandings ensue, and director Laurie Woolery does an astonishing job of keeping the actors, and the audience, on their toes as the tension builds to an almost unbearable level, before reaching an ultimate, astonishing climax. 

Rodriguez, Romero, Alban and McClain play off of each other as effortlessly as water over pebble-stones; everyone in the ensemble is so strong that it is difficult to find a weak link. Senhor and Senhora Costa (played by Triney Sandoval and Vilma Silva, respectively) are the parents of the two young women, and they bring a certain world-weary gravitas to the proceedings that helps in contextualizing the history of the family.

It was the intention of the playwright to give us a story of cautionary love, one that is more Brothers Grimm than happily-ever-after. Orta is a master at spooling out the drama of ordinary life so that the audience can gain deeper insight into the agony and the ecstasy of bonded affection. In one scene after another, players who should not be listening hear truths about themselves that were never intended to reach their ears. Our hearts are made full, and then break again, as we follow the lives of the star-crossed sisters and their various betrothed. In the end, through new love and old, historic love and foreign, life goes on, and all paths lead us back to the river. 

The director herself admits that it is hard to write about “The River Bride,” because a play that explores love is better experienced than discussed. The job of great art is to allow us to see ourselves in the work, and to walk away from the experience with a better appreciation of the human condition. “River Bride” is a special play, one that must be seen and felt to be understood.

Hopefully, this critic has given you just enough evocative language that you are compelled to see a gem of a production; audience members will have to look long and hard for a new work of this calibre in the future. For the time being, it should be obvious to anyone who sees “River Bride” that it is, by far, the finest play currently on offer in an already strong opening season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 

The River Bride plays in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through July 7. 

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

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