Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border
Word for Word Performing Arts Group
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Patrick's review of The Full Monty

Brady Morales-Woolery, Regina Morones,
Maria Candelaria (on bench)

Photo by Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec
There are many so-called "memory plays" in the theatrical canon, probably the most well-known of which is Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. They can be haunting and beautiful, as writers look back at moments in their lives and attempt to explicate to we in the audience what it was about those moments that, in retrospect, were important and how they shaped the writer and their work. And because one example of that work is the memory play itself, they tend to loop back on themselves, a sort of dramatic möbius strip in which we traverse from past to present without ever crossing an edge.

Octavio Solis is a successful, often-produced playwright (he's written 20, and his Mother Road, which I reviewed when it was produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is currently playing at Washington DC's Arena Stage), but Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border is a different kind of memory play because it's based on his memoir of the same name. In some ways, it is more than "based on" that memoir, because as staged by San Francisco's Word for Word, it takes 12 of the book's 50 chapters and presents them in their entirety, with every single word of the stories spoken/performed in the intimate setting of Z Space's Z Below black box theater.

Solis grew up in the border town of El Paso, Texas, where he was born to Mexican immigrant parents (even calling himself an "anchor baby" because of the automatic status of citizenship it provided) who struggled with poverty, illness (Solis' younger brother died in infancy), and the ever-looming threat of "La Migra," the border patrol, who often harassed brown-skinned people like the Solises, regardless of their immigration status.

The chapters presented here range from charming (Octavio's night at a quinceañera) to troubling (as when his father is told by the border patrol he can no longer cross the border to work in Juárez and live in El Paso) to heartwarming (including the story of "El Judío," a mysterious figure who turns out to be far less threatening than the young Octavio imagined at the time.)

Under the direction of Sheila Balter and Jim Cave, the chapters feel like tiny polished gems that, when strung together, glitter and gleam like a priceless necklace of memory, recounting joy, anger, fear, friendship, love, and so much more. The cast these two have assembled (Maria Candelaria, Edie Flores, Carla Gallardo, Gendell Hernández Gabriel Montoya, Brady Morales-Woolery, Regina Morones, and Ryan Tasker) slip easily between the various roles each is called upon to play. Although some occasionally overplay their emotions (wide-eyed shock goes only so far), they are well-balanced and some of the individual performances are wonderfully crafted. Maria Candelaria has a delicacy of emotion and imbues her characters with beautiful, subtle details—a roll of her eyes, a world-weary scowl, the way her fingers caress the air—that are marvelous to behold. Ryan Tasker has a bold approach to several of his roles that walk the line between comedy and drama in a manner that put me in mind of the late Robin Williams.

It all plays out on a simple, elegant set (by Nina Ball) with a triptych of scrim painted with a representation of the Franklin Mountains in warm, mineral hues. The stage itself has only a bench, a beat-up blue suitcase, sometimes a chair or two, and a frame that functions as door, window, border checkpoint, and even a bar when turned on its side. Subtle lighting cues (from designer Jeff Rowlings) give the set a lovely range of moods, including the warmth of Solis' family life, the festive aspects of Latinx culture, and the harshness of the ever-present threat of poverty and La Migra.

Enriching the experience even further is outstanding original music and sound design by David R. Molina. The music can be atmospheric, even ambient (literally, at one point) or rhythmic and engaging, while never calling attention to itself, only adding to the emotional richness of the scenes unfolding on stage. The sound effects are marvelously mixed, and when the bass kicks in, it sounds like a low-rider with a trunk full of subwoofers suddenly pulled into the theater.

"What good is a story if nothing happens in it?" Octavio asks himself (and us) at one point. Plenty happened in the life of young Octavio Solis, and despite the uncertainty and tragedy the Solis family faced, there seems to have been no shortage of familial love or romantic passion—even if the romance was unrequited—in young Octavio's life. This, along with Solis' clear, visually rich prose, makes what happens in Retablos emotionally satisfying, with the power to both break your heart and warm it.

Yet, as Octavio states, this life was led in "a different time than now—when people knew compassion," so it's unlikely a similar memoir written 50 years from now will have as positive an outlook. Until then, enjoy the clarity and unique voice of Octavio Solis, as interpreted by the immensely talented team of Word for Word Performing Arts Group and you will be left with a memory that is pleasant indeed.

Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border runs through March 15, 2020, at Z Below, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $20-$50 and are available at or by calling 415-626-0453.