By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
photo by Tim Fuller
Ryan Parker Knox as Captain Alvarado (L) and Christopher Johnson as Esteban.
The daring Rogue Theatre Company gambled big, very big, in adapting Thornton Wilder's “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” to its magical minimalist stage.
Then the gamble paid off even bigger on opening weekend as the Rogue's mercurial cast triumphed with its most sweeping, deeply emotional and captivating production ever.
This relatively new company now has its grip on Tucson's committed theater community, developing over the past few years a reputation for converting complicated material into the most gracefully accessible productions of eclectic choices from unexpected places.
“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” caps all that and then some. This is an achievement of considerable difficulty considering at least half the 2 1/2-hour play is narration spoken by actors directly to the audience.
The rest is a series of richly imagined scenes hung like a string of pearls on this textured tale that 11 cast members pass among themselves like story tellers around a campfire.
Rogue co-founder Cynthia Meier did the adaptation, shaping Wilder's text for a dark brown stage design of several levels, dominated by a bridge broken in the middle, its wide chasm emphasizing the random emptiness of chance.
That bridge was in Peru, a woven rope bridge on a major thoroughfare that had served everyone well for centuries until noon on Friday, July 20, 1714, when the bridge suddenly snapped and five people fell to their deaths through no fault of their own.
A humble priest, Brother Juniper (Ryan Parker Knox), was determined to find the hand of God in this senseless tragedy. He spent six years patiently interviewing everyone who had any connection to the five who died.
The heart of the play presents the lives of each one and how they came to be on the bridge at that exact moment. Was God directing them, intervening with coincidence, letting their deaths play out as one small part of His master plan?
As director, Joseph McGrath -- the Rogue's other founder -- achieves the delicate balance of matching these lives with their individual fates. In the process Kathryn Kellner Brown gives a defining performance as the physically twisted Marquesa Dona Maria, a woman gifted with ugliness.
So unpleasing is her appearance, even her own daughter must look away...and then run away to Spain. But the Marquesa insists on loving her daughter deeply, continuing for years to write her letters of exquisite beauty.
Also strong is Marissa Garcia as the famed entertainer Camila Perichole who happily teased and taunted her audiences, especially her male admirers – an Ice Queen of deep zero heartlessness. Later in life when Perichole became a magnet for misfortune, Garcia gave us those moments in equal measure.
Returning to the Rogue stage after a long absence is Christopher Johnson in a smaller role as the troubled Esteban.
It is good to see him back.
Appropriately perhaps, God's will and the passing of time have not been kind to Thornton Wilder's “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” Considered one of the most influential novels of the 20th century, its influence has been shredded by the ensuing culture wars and 21stcentury technology.
No matter. Whether you think it is spelled “San Luis Ray” or “San Luis Rey,” go see this Rogue Theatre production. Years from now people will still be talking about it.
“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” runs through May 8, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thusdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, at the Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd.
All tickets are $35. For details and reservations, 551-2053, or visit theroguetheatre.org