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OSF offers a fairy tale for adults

Folklore in the Amazon Basin of Brazil tells of the botas, or pink river dolphins, that come ashore on a night in June transformed into encantados, handsome young men who court the maidens of the river villages. So when a mysterious stranger in a white suit is pulled from the river in a fisherman’s net in Marisela Treviño Orta’s spellbinding “The River Bride,” we have a pretty good idea what’s up.

Why the people who live here don’t — presumably they’ve heard the tales — is unclear. But no matter. We’re in the realm of fairy tale, and such worlds have their own rules.

“The River Bride” opened Sunday in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre, directed by Laurie Woolery in what’s billed as a world premiere (an earlier version was presented briefly at the San Francisco-based American Conservatory Theater’s costume shop and in a storefront in San Rafael).

Sisters Helena (Nancy Rodriguez) and Belmira (Jamie Ann Romero) live with their parents, Sr. and Sra. Costa (Triney Sandoval and Vilma Silva), in a little fishing village somewhere on the Amazon. Like Shakespeare’s Illyria, it’s a nonspecific place where people aren’t always what they seem, and magical transformations can happen.

Headstrong Belmira, the younger sister, is to be married in three days to Duarte (Carlo Albán), who was docile Helena’s beau when all three were children. Belmira may be less enthralled by Duarte than the prospect of escaping the village for the city, where she imagines an exciting life complete with maids.

Meanwhile, the stranger (Armando McClain), whose name is Moises (suggesting another who was pulled from the waters), is an honored guest in the Costa home, where he is to stay for the wedding. But he has a secret that will change these lives forever.

In magical realism, the fantastical is accepted as a natural part of the ordinary world. In contrast, the non-ordinary in “The River Bride” is startling and creates a sense of awe — and some very cool theatrical effects. Nor does the term Latino Gothic seem to quite fit because it implies horror. With its mix of folklore, fantasy and delicate but muscular language, “The River Bride” is simply a fairy tale for adults, the first in a three-play cycle Treviño Orta envisions.

Think the sometimes terrifying world of the Brothers Grimm, not the watered-down Disney stuff. Both Latino and European folklore are rich in cautionary tales, and that’s where this river leads us, urgently, as time runs ever faster (the play runs about 90 minutes with no intermission).

Falling in love may be as close as most of us come to a magical world, and Helena stands at the edge peering in. But magic is always a little scary, and Treviño Orta brings us to that existential moment when we must decide to leap into the unknown — or not.

The playwright began her career as a poet, and “The River Bride” began with a poetic image that haunted her, a 1947 photo by Toni Frissell of a woman in a white gown floating in water. And water dominates here. David Weiner’s lights turn the floor of Mariana Sanchez’s set into an enchanted river. Projections and video wizardry create the surrounding rainforest, with its sun and moon, its birds and storms. The set reacts to and visually reflects the magical goings-on and the emotions of the characters.

Late in the play, the characters talk about the play’s major themes in a bit of unnecessary explication. This passes quickly. Time is running out, and it’s a time for boldness. In the end, a surprise leads to a dazzling effect. In this world, for all its enchantment, life and love come with no guarantees of happily ever after.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

A mysterious stranger (Armando McClain) makes a connection with Helena (Nancy Rodriguez, left) and causes ripples in the lives of her mother (Vilma Silva) and sister (Jamie Ann Romero) in 'The River Bride.' Photo by Jenny Graham