Theater Review: ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’

March 8, 2018
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Madeline Wise (Doña Clara), Steven Rattazzi (Don Vicente), Sumaya Bouhbal (Pepita), David Greenspan (Uncle Pio) and Mary Lou Rosato (Doña María) star in “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” at Two River Theater. Photo courtesy T. Charles Erickson

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen |

Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” has been adapted by the Two River Theater Company into a very satisfying and touching Peruvian “Our Town.”

There’s even a Stage Manager who talks directly to the audience and who also plays a character. He is played by five-time Obie Award-winning actor and playwright David Greenspan, who also wrote the play, masterfully directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. Its world premiere at the Two River Theater in Red Bank continues through March 18.

If you like your theater theatrical – meaning seeing and hearing something on stage that cannot be replicated in another medium without its verisimilitude being compromised – you don’t want to miss this superb production.

“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” won the Pulitzer Prize as a novel in 1928 and “Our Town” won another in 1938 for drama. Both remain popular, with “Our Town” revived often and “The Bridge” having never been out of print.

Bradley James Tejeda (Manuel), Elizabeth Ramos (Camila Perichole) and Zachary Infante (Esteban). Photo courtesy T. Charles Erickson

“Our Town” is about the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corners and the lives of its occupants between 1901 and 1913. “The Bridge” is about a fictional event that happened in Peru on the road between Lima and Cusco at noon on Friday, July 20, 1714.

It’s no secret the novel begins with the death of five people due to an ancient rope bridge that breaks apart. A friar, who witnessed the tragedy, is compelled to learn more about their lives in order to make sense of it. The last line of the play and novel is often quoted at funerals and memorials: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

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The older you are, the more it rings true.

While the original Broadway production of “Our Town” was three acts with a cast of 40, “The Bridge” is 90 minutes with an ensemble cast of nine immensely talented actors who are milling about the set as the audience arrives.

Greenspan speaks first, once the lights go down. “OK. Look. You’re going to have to imagine the bridge,” he tells us, much to the audience’s amusement. He sets the scene and as the play progresses keeps us updated on who’s who, time and place. When he flashes ahead, he notes, “There’s no time for secondary episodes.”

Unlike “Our Town” which is staged with few or no set or props, “The Bridge” has a fancy but faded proscenium arch set upstage with framed out wings on either side creating three “walls” so the actors – who know they are playing characters, and we know that they know – are never off stage.

These metatheatre techniques work extremely well and are enhanced by Antje Ellermann’s creative set design along with the lighting by Yuki Nakase and costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy.

Greenspan, who makes skilled acting look effortless, slips smoothly into his Uncle Pio role as a mentor to Camila Perichole (Elizabeth Ramos), whom he bought from her family when she was a child. He has groomed her into one of the most famous actresses in Peru.

Julienne Hanzelka Kim is Madre Maria, the abbess of the convent who takes in orphans and ministers to the deaf, the insane and the dying. Bradley James Tejeda as Manuel and Zachary Infante as Esteban are twin brothers who were left at the orphanage as babies and now are young men. Sumaya Bouhbal as Pepita is the young companion to the very rich and very vain Dona Maria (Mary Lou Rosato) who drinks too much, wanders through the town and occasionally speaks in iambic pentameter.

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Madeline Wise is her daughter Doña Clara, who moved to Spain and married to get away. They get along by writing letters that take three months to travel between Peru to Spain. That way they forget what was said in the last letter that made each so angry.

Steven Rattazzi plays everyone else: Don Vicente, the Spanish husband of Doña Clara; Don Andrés de Ribera, the viceroy of Peru and the lover of Camila Perichole; ship Captain Alvarado, and Inez, a novice at the convent. He also manipulates a child-sized puppet that represents Jaime, Camila’s young son. When the moment comes in the play when the bridge collapses – and we now know what brought these five souls there simultaneously – Schmoll’s staging of the scene is incredibly poignant and much more powerful than witnessing the real thing.

On opening night the actors appeared surprised and flattered that the opening night audience called them back for a second curtain call.

That’s what you get with a simply perfect cast, an innovative director and a skillful playwright, all of whom can make theater an adventure.

Two River Theater is at 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank. Tickets are $40 to $70; dis- counts are available. For more information, call 732- 345-1400 or online at tworivertheater.org.

Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen’s theater news and reviews can be found on theatercues.com.


This article was first published in the March 1-8, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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