The River Bride – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Center, Phoenix

There’s an Amazonian folklore that tells of pink dolphins, known as the boto, who swim the river and turn into men. Once on land, the handsome young men seduce the village girls, impregnate them, then return to the river. Some believe the story arose because of dolphin genitalia bearing a resemblance to that of a human. Perhaps more realistically, others think it developed as a way to enshroud the habit of incestuous relationships, something not altogether unusual in small, isolated villages along the Amazon. How the myth came about would make an interesting subject of its own.

Award-winning playwright, Marisela Treviño Orta has cleverly taken that legend and crafted her own tale of the boto. The River Bride, now performing at Herberger Center until December 3, is a fairy tale, a hypnotic, dream-like fable of love and yearning whose telling flows as gracefully as the surface of the Amazon itself.

A mysterious man is rescued from the river, just at a time when a local wedding is about take place. As we learn during the introduction, “The only time here is ‘once.’” And then, as if to underline that what we’re about to see is truly a fantasy, our narrator begins the tale of The River Bride with, “Once upon a time...”

The youngest of two sisters, the impetuous Belmira (Paula Rebelo), is going to marry Duarte (Sean Burgos), and she can’t wait. “I am going to see the world, Boto,” she happily declares to a river dolphin as it passes the small, wooden pier that leads from the bank of the river to the family home. But a storm, effectively depicted on a giant, back screen projection complete with sounds of rain, thunder and a crack of sorcerous lightning, changes the course of events. Belmira’s wedding will take place in three days, but the arrival of the mystifying Moises (Hugo E. Carbajal) may change things in ways no one could predict.

There’s something different about Moises. He’s friendly, genuinely warm, and appears to be every bit the gentleman that older sister, Helena (Sarita Ocón) would desire in a man. But knowing the legend of the Boto, the immediate question is whether Moises, fished from the river, is a really a human or a river dolphin, using its once-a-year ability to come ashore for three days and find a bride before the sun sets on the third. The mystery is enhanced further when Helena describes Moises as, “Something you see shiny in the water.” Plus, Sr. Costa (Leandro Cano) thinks there’s something familiar about him, calling him a kindred spirit, but not quite knowing why.

There’s even a touch of magic about his arrival. When their eyes first meet, Moises and Helena are together on the pier. The moment pauses, accompanied by the magical sound of a tingling bell, as if the Amazon had just waved its own fairy dust upon the couple, and it happens right at the moment when a shooting star passes above. Love develops, and it comes quickly, but then one wonders who will really be the river bride of the title, the impulsive Belmira and her Duarte, or the older and considerably more hesitant Helena and her inscrutable Moises? Perhaps Sra. Costa (Dena Martinez) will see both daughters marry.

But even though there’s a once-upon-a-time that introduces things, whether there’ll be a happy-ever-after is not so easy to say. As events develop, the fairy tale ending to this handsome Kinan Valdez directed production isn’t quite in the mold of a Disney feature. Its bittersweet conclusion, though neither as grim as something by the Brothers Grimm, nor as sad as the original ending to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, may not be the one you’ll want, but it is the one required. “Life is about navigating disappointments,” the young Belmira states in a rare moment of maturity, which is what The River Bride is really about. Not everything that happens can be planned, and when faced with choices, the right one is not always so obvious. Disappointments will come, those moments always do, but it’s how you react and work past them that matters. That’s what character is.

Told in just under 90 minutes without intermission, among the spells and sorcery told within the folklore of The River Bride, there’s a warm feeling of enchantment that envelops the audience. It catches hold in the way Sr. Costa and Duarte catch their fish when casting their nets out into the river. With a simple though effective set of a wooden pier, a jetty, a doorway to the Costa riverside house, and an effective peek into the home that’s literally carved into the back screen, watching characters move across the atmospheric design is like witnessing a living Amazonian tableaux. Like the legend of the Boto, there’s an overall charm to this highly engaging, professional Arizona Theatre Company production. It can’t help but please.

Pictures courtesy of Tim Fuller

Arizona Theatre Company’s production of The River Bride will continue at Herberger Center, Phoenix until December 3

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