Retablos: Stories from A Life Lived Along the Border earns 5 stars

L-R: Maria Candelaria, Edie Flores, Gabriel Montoya, Carla Gallardo, Gendell Hernández, Brady Morales-Woolery, Regina Morones. The Sacred Heart mural of El Segundo. Word for Word’s production of Retablos by Octavio Solis. Photo credit: Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec

Retablos: Stories from A Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis. Adapted from his book, “A Memoir Of Growing Up In El Paso.” Directed by Sheila Balter and Jim Cave. Word for Word, Z Below, 470 Florida St. San Francisco, CA. 415-626-0453 or at

Retablos: Stories from A Life Lived Along the Border earns 5 stars Rating: ★★★★★

February 22 -March 15, 2020

Octavio Solis is a theatrical auteur who has and is making an impact in the theatrical world of the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. He has also written a book “A Memoir of Growing up in El Paso.” Those stories/memories he calls “retablos.”  In a preamble to that book he writes, “A retablo is a devotional painting, usually laid on a small, tin plate of cheap, repurposed metal in which a dire event is depicted and which they survive thanks to the intercession of the Divine.” Solis uses words to “paint” those retablos and Word for Word theatrical group brilliantly creates the visual aspect completing “the paintings.”

They have selected 12 of the 50 stories and perform them word for word including the “she said”, “He said” giving physical life to the words creating an evening that should not be missed. This all takes place on the intimate Z-Below theater space creating a bond between the actors and the audience. The selections are vignettes of Solis’ life growing up in El Paso with the invisible line between U.S./ Mexico border that becomes crushing reality with the “La Migra” border patrol always harassing the brown-skin natives no matter which side of the border is their home and a disregard of nationality.

The selected chapters are representative of the definition of retablos as “an accident, a crime, an illness, a calamity and some terrible rift in a person’s life.” Included with the problems that spur the placing of a retablos on the walls of the church there a happy moments and laughter that light up the stage. One of the most memorable is Solis attending the 16th birthday party for his sister (a quinceañera) and the bitter sweet experience of a dance that ends with a curtain line for the ages bringing an appreciative roaring laughter from the audience. 

Solis’ memories draw an eclectic painting of his 1960-70s times growing up in El Paso. They are similar but very different from what is happening at the present time. You may recognize that those past experiences and present turmoil have been reflected in some of plays. As he notes 50 years from now when one is to write about today’s memories the laughter will be minimal.

For no apparent reason the evening is divided into two segments called “Nothing Happens” and “The Quince.” The direction by Sheila Balter and Jim Cave give equal weight to both segments creating an unforgettable montage that earned the standing ovation. They have molded their superb cast (Maria Candelaria, Edie Flores, Carla Gallardo, Gendell Hernández Gabriel Montoya, Brady Morales-Woolery, Regina Morones, and Ryan Tasker) into a cohesive unit as they adroitly change into the various characters they play not only changing costumes (Callie Floor) but also persona.

The artistic accolades must be shared with the creative crew with a remarkable beautiful minimal set (by Nina Ball) that makes you feel the warmth of  El Paso under the rear scrim depicting  the Franklin Mountains and two side diaphanous scrims with two moveable doorways that morph into windows, a border check point, a bar and even a fence.  It all starts on a relatively bare stage with a bench and battered blue suitcase and later a few chairs appear and disappear.

The subtle lighting by Jeff Rowlands and expressive sound design by David Molina are exceptional with Molina’s original music further buttressing the feeling of a border town.

Running time is about 90 minutes including the brief intermission.

Highly recommended.

Kedar K. Adour, MD