Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The River Bride
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Marisa Lopes and Ricardo C.
Photo by Christian Pizzirani
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 John R. Lewis and presented by City Lights Theater Company, meets these criteria and more. From the opening moments of this fantasy's dockside setting in the jungles of the Brazilian Amazon, we are surrounded by mystical sounds of tropical birds, lapping water, and chattering river dolphins. We are soon introduced to a legend of the Boto, river dolphins who emerge as a man 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 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 into the river that runs next to the family's jungle abode. To a chirping dolphin eagerly accepting her tossed gifts, Belmira expresses her excitement for a marriage to childhood friend Duarte, whom she is sure will help her escape this remote village for a more exciting life in the city. Belmira is the center of her own universe and believes that even the sky's lightning is "announcing my wedding with a drum roll all of Brazil can hear." She is also a constant 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–like she did with Duarte–who tries to date her older sister, Helena.

As Belmira, Salma Zepeda excels in every respect as a daughter and a sister who must be in the spotlight, no matter the cost. With her sarcastic smirks and taunting voice and haughty flips of head and hair, she unashamedly pushes her sister aside in order to home in and take over any and all conversations. Even though she has triumphantly won her first love, Duarte, away from Helena and is only hours away from the altar with him, Belmira ostentatiously and with no shame flirts with 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"). Her aggressive fangs sharpen even more as the debonair Moises begins courting her sister. The more Helena begins to fall in love with the family's guest, the more Belmira slinks and smiles her way into their moments together, even as her wedding hour approaches.

Ricardo C. is the soft-spoken, exceedingly polite Moises, exotic and sexy in both accent and looks. Arriving out of the murky, river waters clad in a snow white suit and straw hat, polished boots, and a bandana-wrapped head, he immediately looks longingly at the reticent, reserved Helena, soon bestowing her with gifts uncommon in the remote jungle and predicting to a skeptical Helena, "When you give your love, you will change your man."

Marisa Lopes's Helena does not vary her affect much–vocally or expression-wise–even as the striking stranger ups his romantic approaches. Her hesitation to accept as true the increasingly wooing words of Moises or to give into his sense of urgency for a yes to marriage is clearly proof of a risk averse nature, one expressed when she tells him that even if she sees something in the water she might want, "when you reach in, you might lose your hand." As her own words begin to soften to his approaches, it is sometimes difficult to believe she really means them, given the lack of much variation beyond the bland looks and voice Lopes uses to express Helena's emotions.

Much more expressive along every dimension are Sr. and Sra. Costa. Each is a joy to watch as they tell others how they met each and fell in love in only three days. Their love is visible in the way the two radiate from head to toe when together.

Sergio Davila's Sr. Costa is a gleeful bundle of energy and excitement, immediately finding a kindred soul with Moises. When he tells Moises of a recurring dream he has involving being in the water swimming alone, his exuberance is contagious and his telling is one of the evening's highlights. Likewise, Carolina Perez's Sra. Costa glows when talking to Helena about first meeting her husband, with her aim in no subtle manner to help her daughter find that same kind of catch in this man just drawn from the waters.

Arturo Montes solidly rounds out the cast as Duarte. Toward Moises he is openly belligerent and distrustful. Toward Belmira he is like an obedient puppy. When looking at Helena from an unseen shadow, his eyes show sad resignation and longing.

John R. Lewis achieves the relaxed, rhythmic feeling of the Amazon region with a pace that is never rushed but always flowing forward with purpose. 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 the beauty of it all.

The lush lagoon setting designed by Ron Gasparinetti, while humble, is palpably romantic with its multi-colored dock winding along a sparkling, plant-bordered river and butting against the wood-plank, one-room house. Spenser Matubang's lighting adds to the magical feel of the jungle with its sudden storms of lightning and its dappled sunlight through rain-forested canopy as does the symphony of insects, a river's water, rain, and tropical-based music as created by the sound design of George Psarras.

When all of the creative team's efforts are combined with the tropically colored, celebration-ready costumes designed by Kailyn Erb, we are lured into believing that the family's chatter and teasing of each other, the planning of 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.

Whatever the ending, the telling of this tale of The River Bride by City Lights Theater Company is a journey into the Brazilian jungle well-worth exploring.

The River Bride runs through June 11, 2023, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose CA. For tickets and information, please call