River of Passion spoofs the overdramatic soap opera

Bold, beautiful, young, and restless: Candace Stimpson, Nathan Tylutki, and Kyle Orf
Jesse Gavin

The beauty of the soap opera lies in its ruthless agenda of blowing life up to lurid dimensions, with sex and deceit and treachery writ in the broadest of strokes. It's a world where almost anything can happen, no matter how harebrained, with the only real imperative being the inexorable daily refreshing of the story. The Flower Shop Project's Gretchen Weinrich heartily concurs.

"I love soap operas," she says when queried about FSP's new River of Passion. "The last few years I've been really appreciating the genre for its genreness. I feel like they get a bad rap and are totally underappreciated. The people who work in L.A. and New York on these shows do so much work so fast, and they have to play the same character forever while keeping it fresh."

It's this mix of repetition and titillation that the FSP attempts to duplicate in the live-action River of Passion, a five-episode soap set in the Twin Cities and featuring all the hallmarks of the genre: lies about paternity, skeezy business dealings, and relentless scheming. Episode one played last Friday at the Bryant-Lake Bowl; this week part two will appear.

"It's basically a five-hour show that you don't see all at once," Weinrich explains. "Parts of the story overlap, in case you miss one, and there's a ridiculous amount of exposition in the first scene—which we have to deliver like it's no big deal."

The first episode was pretty much pitch-perfect in embracing the genre's ridiculousness for laughs while also playing things straight. We met magnate Magnus Magnusson (John Lilleberg), who tries to hold his empire together while dealing with wayward son Ashe (David Schlosser), who was once in love with Magnus's latest wife, Olivia (Melissa Roy).

Magnus's headaches are magnified by Paddy O'Sullivan (Alan Wales), who guns for the Magnusson enterprise while also running for governor of Minnesota. Magnus's son Gunnar (Ernest Briggs) is also vying for the statehouse, with his fortunes hinging on subterfuge involving young Chastity and Charity (Hannah Benedict), twins long separated—one twin being sweet and the other enthusiastically evil (Benedict is convincing as both).

There's also Magnus's daughter Brit (Mimi Holland), a physician at HCMC who behaves as though she has recently sustained an alarming cranial injury, and who is of course up to something she shouldn't be. Cop Jake Flanagan (Nathan Tylutki) is trying to solve a murder and keep his ex-wife out of trouble, all the while attempting to patch up his tattered relationship with wide-eyed son Ranger (Kyle Orf).

Jesus. About halfway into the episode, it became apparent that no attempt was going to be made to dilute the intricate madness of a vintage soap, and this was good. The script, a collaboration between Bethany Hummel, Brenna Jones, and Stephen R. Moeller, is an unapologetic tribute to the soap genre (while moving the story along much faster than the crawling pace of the actual TV programs).

This is by no means a big-budget enterprise—designer Philip Hoks manages about a dozen sets out of what looks to be a marriage between a foldaway mini-sofa and a painted crate—but it's the sort of show that turns its limitations into assets. At least one performer was attempting to suppress his laughter at the absurdity of it all, but he managed. A poker face, after all, is essential to solid melodrama.

Weinrich notes that, when work began on River, things got surreal very quickly. "Once you start working on it for real," she says, "it just flew in the face of all our theater training."

So it may be an oddity, but River of Passion undeniably possesses the cotton-candy appeal that one feels like consuming to the point of nausea. With four more episodes to go, I have a feeling old Magnus isn't getting out of this one unscathed.

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