There is a certain comfort in the fairy tales we tell to children. They have familiar “once upon a time” beginnings and “happily ever after” endings. They have good guys and evil witches, dramatic arcs with great stakes, and instructive morals to guide young people and keep them safe. In most of them, true love triumphs in the end and transgressors get their just deserts. 

But there’s little that is comforting about The River Bride, by Marisela Treviño Orta, running through September 30 in the indoor Touchstone Theatre at American Players Theatre. It blends a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, Brazilian folklore, and the heightened reality of theater to create a story that is at once traditional and modern, familiar, and startlingly new. The result is fascinating and disconcerting. Thoughtfully directed by Robert Ramirez and performed by a uniformly stellar cast, The River Bride captures the audience from the first moments of the magical, 90-minute drama, then enchants us with gorgeous, poetic language, wishes fulfilled, and the promise of ecstatic, extraordinary love. Then it breaks our hearts. 

At rise, lush leafy vines hang lazily above a pair of weather-worn wooden piers, with a freshwater branch of the Amazon separating the audience from the world of the Costa family and their small Brazillian town. (Evocative scenic design is by Regina García.) The dark river draws us in as Belmira (a luminous Gabriela Castillo) plays with an unseen water creature by throwing him a treat that her father and fiance would otherwise use as bait, out in their fishing boat. Her older sister Helena (a sullen Melisa Pereyra) warns that she shouldn’t taunt the white, freshwater dolphins that way. And like every warning in a fairy tale, when it’s ignored the characters seal their own fate. 

Meanwhile, the family is buzzing with activity because in only three days they will host Belmira’s wedding to her childhood sweetheart Duarte (Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo), a quietly pensive young man from the village. But on this day, instead of hauling in a boat full of fish for the wedding feast, the groom and bride’s father Senor Costa (a rugged Triney Sandoval) catch something else in their net: a handsome man, dressed all in white with a bandage wrapped around his forehead. 

The River Bride shows its hand very early as a story full of magical effects, through Jesse Klug’s lighting design and the beautiful, slow motion physicality the actors adopt during important moments. So when the mysterious stranger Moises (Ronald Romàn-Meléndez) is dragged from the water, he tumbles through the audience towards the stage, bathed in an intensely bright light, practically cartwheeling through the water towards land. There can be no mistake — this is a supernatural event of great consequence.

After searching for more survivors of an assumed shipwreck, the Costa family cares for Moises, worries over him, and is fascinated by him. And although Belmira sets her sights on winning the well dressed interloper who must surely have money — someone who will take her far away from this backwater village and show her the world — he only has eyes for the quietly suffering, still waters of Helena’s heart. 

As the mystical visitor Moises, whose mission is to be married in three days or be banished from the village for another year, Romàn-Meléndez is energetic and enchanting, a perfect foil for Pereyra’s cautious Helena. While he wholeheartedly pursues what he wants, she retreats from happiness as if she is undeserving. He is forward and sure where she is doubtful and tentative. It is a delicate dance full of dazzling possibility that is pushed to the tipping point — and then suddenly reversed — in a story where decisions made with the head instead of the heart always end in tragedy.

While Helena’s mother Senora Costa (Erica Cruz Hernàndez) urges her hesitant daughter towards marriage with the comic fervor of a yente, she also models what a lifetime of happiness with an ideal partner can be: playful, passionate, all-encompassing — almost too good to be true. Hernàndez and Sandoval embody the couple that every young lover hopes to be part of in the waning years of a union. Their earnest wishes will also be fulfilled — to their sorrow. 

Playwright Orta sprinkles the script with repetition, both in words and images that create layers of recognition and radiance. Dreams, memories, reflections, and emotions of indescribable intensity figure in the dialogue over and over again as each character talks about their yearnings. She also weaves in twists and overheard confessions worthy of a Shakespearean plot, so that no character walks a straight line toward the thing they seek. 

The penultimate scene is another moment, played out in slow motion and soaked in magic that is excruciatingly beautiful. And while there are many morals one might take from this new-fashioned fable, they are overridden by a Chekovian, aching sense of loss for all that might have been. The River Bride is 90 minutes of pure, elegant, transformative love and heartbreak that truly belongs in APT’s inclusive definition of “classic theater.” It is simply not to be missed.

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