You may not be aware that Arizona Theatre Company has sponsored a nationwide playwriting contest since 1993. The National Latino Playwriting Contest solicits Latino playwrights residing in the United States, its territories or in Mexico. It's a positive nod to the Latino community, which strengthens so richly the fabric—cultural and otherwise— of our city, from a theater that takes a pretty conventional regional theater approach to choosing a season.
The River Bride, by Marisela Treviño Orta, was the winning script from the 2013 contest, and it is the first winner to be given a main stage production at ATC. Its world premiere was at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival last year, and it's being a part of this season at ATC is rather a landmark event.
Orta has dipped into the rich tradition of Brazilian folklore to create her own version of a folktale. As most such stories are, it's a cautionary tale about love and regret, family and trust and the mysteries the river of life coughs up from time to time.
Here, it's the Amazon river. We meet a family composed of fisherman husband Sr. Costa (Leandro Cano), wife Sra. Costa (Dena Martinez), and daughters Helena (Sarita Ocón) and Belmira (Paula Rebelo), who is to be married within days. Her groom is Duarte (Sean Burgos), who really loves Helena and she him. However, she has deferred to her little sister's demanding nature—Belmira wants Duarte and she always gets her way. But things are shaken when the fishing partners, father and son-in-law to be, haul in their nets to find a man dressed in a white suit, with a white Panama hat, no shoes, and a bandage on his head. He says his name is Moises (Hugo E. Carbajal). He immediately sets his eyes on Helena and quickly proposes.
Eventually, we find that in June, the legend goes, a pink river dolphin (and such there really are) in the form of a man lands onshore to swiftly woo a woman who will marry him, thus transforming him into a real man, no longer being chased back to his dolphin ways. His presence again aggravates the sisters' competitive relationship. How will this play out?
The actors admirably embody the tale, but it's the way it is told that makes it a pleasing theater experience. The playwright sets us up to accept the simplicity of the story, the script itself, by referring several times to the inadequacy of words to plumb the depths of issues of love and family.
But by summoning all the magic that theater can conjure, we are called into a dream, a visual poem, a type of dance. Orta and director Kinan Valdez utilize several styles to deliver this fanciful tale, and these engage us in ways other than the literary. And that's how it should be, because we are in a world of the fantastic, a mysterious world where strong visual images and music are as important as words.
Folk tales arise from place, from the natural world which dictates so much to its human inhabitants. In this case, it's the world of the mighty Amazon river, at 6,400 miles the second longest river in the world, spewing more volume of water into the ocean than the seven largest rivers combined. Its width can sometimes reach six miles, and it nourishes the largest rainforest in the world. Strange tales from such a place are sure to arise as humans try to negotiate their lives there.
One of the strongest assets of ATC's production is the creation of the visual landscape of life in the mighty river world, never with an eye toward real or literal representation, but with fantastic impressions of the river landscape.
Set designer Regina Garcia gives the family a simple set of wooden platforms grounding the story. David Lee Cuthbert provides the lighting as well as projections that place us in the abstract, more mythical dimensions of the piece, suggesting rain and lightning and the presence of the flora that characterize not only the physical location, but the world of story in which we and the characters wander.
In fact, we are so drawn to the visual world that it almost overwhelms the action of the story. One could argue that the show is a bit over-produced in that respect, since all theatrical components of a piece must exist in balance. Surely, the sense of place here is almost as much of a character as those the actors embody, and surely it needs to lend vitality and movement and context. But perhaps it could be executed with a bit more restraint. Sometimes less is truly more.
But Orta and the actors and designers create a fantastic and seductive and poetic world into which we fall willingly, loosening our sense of reason and finding ourselves awash in the power of folkloric storytelling.