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“Retablos: Stories From A Life Lived Along the Border”

Octavio Solis’s “Retablos” at Word for Word

Carol Benet

Octavio Solis’s “Retablos: Stories from A Life Lived Along the Border” at Word for Word is the first of this year’s productions at this unique troupe that recreates short stories for the stage and acts them out word for word — even the “he said” and “she said”.

The current show is like the retablos that you see in the Day of the Dead celebrations with an altar as  memorial two the life of a loved one decorated with favorite items from their lives.  In Solis’s “Retablos”  taken from his book of fifty short stories they are scenes of his memories of growing up on the border between El Paso,Texas and Mexico.

The directors Sheila Balter and Jim Cave and the troupe chose several scenes, played chronologically, from the author’s life.  Different actors play Solls at different ages.

The character of Solis says the “memories come to me”  and  the play starts when he is 13 , at home with his parents, whom he remembers being behind their bedroom door.  We can see them through a scrim and hear them, first laughing and then in heartfelt crying.  He has never heard his father cry before.

The story of his parents’ marriage is acted out.  Because his mother is pregnant the disapproving grandmother objects.  The family’s life on a border where the boy, now a young married man with children, must cross from Mexico daily to work is an issue as the border patrol man says he has to stay in one place and cannot cross anymore.  Other indignities pile up such as the hassle with the  police woman. He is labeled “an anchor”, the child who will plant himself in America to obtain entry to for his other relatives (like Trump’s wife who brought her parents to the U.S.A. after he was president despite his promise to his base to do away with anchoring). 

The best scene is that of the Quinceañera, the party for a Mexican girl  when she becomes 15.  Here the narrator is with a group of other boys invited, all wearing similar black tuxedos and pink shirts.  He is attracted to one of the girls who reminded him of Natalie Wood in “West Side Story” and pursues her only to be pushed into dancing with her lame cousin sitting on the sidelines.  The dancing to pop music as well as strains of “West Side Story” make this a lively yet poignant scene.  

The sound design and original music played throughout on a guitar is by David R. Molina and  is brilliant.  So is Jeff Rowlings’ lighting that creates headlights blinding the boys at  one time and reflections from the ball on the ceiling of the Quinceañas for another. Carolina Morones choreography and cultural consultancy makes the play interesting and authentic.  Nina Ball’s set is wonderful and as in all Word for Word productions it is simple and portable.  She creates a scene on painted panels in the background  with the desert and a mountain all bathed in a warm glow throughout.  A simple door frame, carved as one in a retablo,  and costumes by Callie Floor are also wonderful.  

All of these properties have to be carried from one of the four French cities (Paris, Nancy, Anger and Lyon) where Word for Word will produce “Retablos”  after it closes in San Francisco. They are invited by the American Library in Paris to tour in France almost annually.   One of the directors Jim Cave told me the troupe has to carry everything on trains from one city to the next. He explains that the door frame comes apart and fits into a ski bag as do Nina Ball’s backdrops..

The six actors (Maria Candelaria, Edie Flores, Carla Gallardo Gendell Hernández, Gabriel Montoya, Brady Morales-Woolery, Regina Morones, Ryan Tasker are superb.

Octavio Solls’s “Retablos” at Word for Word runs through March 15, 2020 at Z Space Below, 470 Florida.  ZSpace.org or 415 826 0453.

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