Sunday, May 10, 2015

"The River Bride"

The River Bride
Marisela Trevino Orta

A fairy tale is supposed to have an air of magic, a sense of mystery, and a promise of “happily ever after.”  Certainly Marisela Trevino Orta’s The River Bride, as directed by Aldo Billingslea and presented by students of Santa Clara University’s Department of Theatre & Dance, meets these criteria and more.  From the opening moments of this fantasy’s dock-side setting in the jungles of the Brazilian Amazon, we are surrounded by mystical sounds of tropical birds, lapping water, and chattering river dolphins (thanks to the expert sound design of David Sword).  We are soon introduced to an old wives’ legend of the Boto, dolphins who emerge on shore once a year for three days to find true love, acceptance of instant marriage, and thus a release from a life of underwater roaming through life alone.  And we begin to suspect that Botos, former and current, are among those we are meeting as the Costa family prepares for the marriage (in three days, of course) of one of its two beautiful daughters. 

As the bride-to-be, Belmira opens our tale by throwing her father’s fish bait to a chirping dolphin, expressing her excitement for a marriage to childhood friend Duarte, whom she is sure will help her escape this remote village for the exciting life of the city.  Belmira is the center of her own universe and believes even the sky’s lightning is “announcing my wedding with a drum roll all of Brazil can hear.”  She is a plotter and a manipulator who will do anything to ensure the desired escape from this poor fishing village, including moving in and taking over any beau who approaches her sister Helena.  As Belmira, Taneisha Figueroa excels in every respect from her sarcastic smirks and voice, to haughty flips of head and hair, and unashamed pushing her sister aside in order to hone in and take over a conversation.  Even though she has spent years winning Helena’s first love, Duarte, she begins to envy even on her wedding eve the wooing of her sister by a handsome, well-dressed stranger whom her father and Duarte have rescued from the river, appropriately named Moises (like the Biblical Moses, “drawn from the water”).  The more Helena (portrayed in a sophisticated, reserved, but still sensual manner by Sonya Venugopal) begins to fall in love with the family’s guest Moises (soft-spoken Elahdio Aliaga who in his white suit, Panama hat, and bandana-wrapped forehead is both angelic and sexy as hell), the more Belmira slinks and smiles her way into their moments together, even as her wedding hour approaches.

Aldo Billingslea achieves the relaxed, rhythmic feeling of the Amazon region with a pace that is never rushed but always flowing forward with purpose.  When the fishing father and the fiancé Duarte take to the water, they do so with no visible boat but instead with coordinated bodies serving as the oars that move them through the invisible, but audible waves.  Combined with the free-flowing, loosely wrapped costumes of Patt Ness, we are lured into believing that the family’s chatter and teasing of each other, the planning of the Belmira’s and Duarte’s wedding, and the emerging love between Helena and Moises will lead in the end to a happiness that mirrors what we see in the love between the sisters’ father and mother.  But as storm clouds, thunder, and very strange lightning of multiple colors erupt the peaceful setting, we also realize that this fairy tale may be grimmer than we had earlier supposed.

What makes this play particularly wonderful is the beauty of the words each character brings to the tale.  Sticking his toes into the river is described by Moises as “submerging into the heartbeat of a continent.”  In remembering a time before life with his wife, Sr. Costa says, “I was an ache as long as this river.”  And of true love, Sra. Costa tells her daughters, “Words are good for a lot of things, but Love lives in a place deep inside where there are not words.”  Poet-turned-playwright Orta brings a stunning, musical quality to her dialogue that appreciates a director’s pace that allows the audience moments to savor such astonishing phrases.

Clearly the young actors of this university-level production have blossomed in their roles through the luxury of many more weeks of study and rehearsal together than usually afforded their counterparts on most Bay Area stages.  Their nuanced portrayals speak of the excellent tutelage by Professor and Director Billingslea and are a reminder to us all to take advantage of our local, university theatre venues for evenings of true magic.

The real happy ending of The River Bride, 2013 co-winner of the National Latino Playwriting Award, is that it will receive its official world premiere and be enjoyed by thousands of theatre patrons during Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 season.  For Marisela Trevino Orta, that must be a fairy tale come true.

Rating: 4 E’s

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