Photos by Luis Escobar, Reflections Photography Studio

The River Bride was onstage at PCPA February 16-March 5, 2023.

So . . . it’s tempting to say that the show’s exquisite set, costume, lighting, and sound designs are the main reasons to see The River Bride, a lushly complex play by Marisela Treviño Orta now playing through March 5 in Santa Maria. But the text of the play itself, the work of the actors, and the nuances provided by the director, Marilet Martinez, are equally impressive, making this gem one of the best shows PCPA has mounted this season.

There is honesty in the performances, and a purposeful momentum evident as the play unfolds in PCPA’s 200-seat black-box Severson Theatre—the perfect, intimate venue for the audience to connect with this production. Martinez doesn’t shy away from allowing the players to zealously embrace the many joys and heartaches this mixture of family dynamics and folklore portrays.

And there is much to appreciate about all of these things: the pleasures and pain of love, the rivalries of siblings, the insights of perceptive parents, and the power of storytelling to make magic happen.

Inspired by traditional Amazon River folklore about mythological river dolphins (Botos) who can take human form as handsome young men, this production is magical in many ways. Two sisters, the reserved Helena and the impetuous Belmira (Christen Celaya and Rosie Quintana, both lyrical in their portrayals of young women trying to be true to their own hearts) encounter Moises (a charismatic Johnny Valeria) who enchants them both, although in different ways.

Hugo Carbajal and Dena Martinez give charming life to their roles as Sr. and Sra. Costa, both rendering utterly appealing performances as parents who haven’t forgotten they are also utterly in love with each other. Oscar Emmanuel Fabela steadfastly rounds out the cast as a husband-to-be who isn’t sure exactly where he should be.

The language in The River Bride is strong and evocative. So is the design of this production, which magically presents a living jungle, a rolling river, and a raging storm, along with quieter, equally impressive interludes.

Scenic designer Jason Bolen has conjured up an entrancing river, quay, hut, and tropical jungle—all setting a powerful stage for the action. The lighting and sound designs, by Cody Soper and Tony Angelini respectively, bring the set alive, drawing the audience into each scene (some taking place in the river itself) in the most captivating ways. Bright, mixed patterns predominate in the costumes by Haydee Zelideth, which must have been a joy to build for the delight they bring to the audience.

The show, which runs just an hour-and-a-half with no intermission, ends as it begins, with one of the sisters alone and musing beside the river. It’s a poetic wrap-around to a production that truly evokes love and loss, animates reality and fantasy, and intensely demonstrates the power of storytelling to bridge the distance between the Amazon jungle and the Central Coast.

:: Charlotte Alexander

Editor’s Note: If you have tickets for either of the two remaining Sunday performances, you should take advantage of a rare treat. Learn more about The River Bride and the process of mounting the show by staying after the Sunday, February 26 performance for a discussion with the playwright, Marisela Treviño Orta, or by arriving at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 5 for a pre-show prologue with the director, Marilet Martinez.