To savor the writing of award-winning, erstwhile local playwright Octavio Solis (“The Pastures of Heaven,” “Santos & Santos” and many more) is pure pleasure. That same combination of lyrical and colloquial language that characterizes his plays also marks his highly regarded memoir, “Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border,” at least as seen in Word for Word’s staging of a few of the book’s chapters.
The actors in Word for Word, the San Francisco company that stages literary work verbatim — “he saids,” “she saids” and all — often shape-shift, change roles, share text in various ways and even become animate objects.
Directors Sheila Balter and Jim Cave chose 12 unconnected chapters from Solis’ much longer account of growing up in El Paso for this eight-actor theatricalization, enhanced by, among other production elements, sound designer David R. Molina’s original music.
In “Retablos” — the word refers to a small, devotional painting of a dire event, writes Solis — the chapters form a slight arc, as the narrator visits and revisits his childhood home, his mind flooded with memories that materialize onstage.
Some are funny (a quinceañera celebration that turns poignant), some painful (a fraught father-son scene, the son now realizing that he was born with “the same angry face” as his father) and some mystical (a group of neighborhood kids on bicycles have a vision of the ghostly and tragic folkloric figure La Llorona).
There are encounters with the border patrol, and an uneasy relationship between the boy’s parents and the local Jewish moneylender, El Judio — “The most pernicious stereotype,” the narrator admits, ruefully, “but we were stereotyping too.”
Woven throughout the stories are the culture and the natural environment in which the narrator grew up: a neighborhood of Mexican immigrants (like his own parents), and their first-generation children (like him), the Rio Grande not far away, and poverty looming.
His father, as the son describes it, initially walked across the Santa Fe Bridge to his job in Juarez — until the border patrol put an end to that. “I anchor my parents … and they anchor me,” the narrator muses. The urge to disclaim the past and the urge to reclaim it can exist simultaneously, as Solis so beautifully illustrates.
In Word for Word’s imaginative world, a suitcase that immigrants carry across the border can also serve as a kid’s boombox in his new American home, or a TV, and a mother and grandmother can be played by the same actor.
But the directorial decision to have three narrators here seems illogical. Why one narrator in this scene, a different one in another scene?
Similarly, a profusion of unnecessary activity too often undercuts some of Solis’ elegantly simple prose, and dividing up the narration between, for example, a brother and sister, in which they pretend to be talking to each other, feels shoehorned in.
When a narrator talks directly to the audience and speaks in the most down-to-earth, unsentimental way, Solis’ work is the most luminous.
Presented by Word for Word
Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays; closes March 15
Tickets: $20 to $50
Contact: (415) 626-0453, zspace.org
Direct narration to the audience also figures into Sedef Ecer’s “On the Periphery,” but in a different and less effective way. The sense of a border is present here, too.
In the Turkish-born playwright’s scenario, an appealing young couple, Tamar (Leila Rosa) and Azad (Zaya Kolia), are living along the Periphery Road that demarcates the slums of Istanbul. The girl dreams of Paris, where the women all say “Ooh la la,” a dream inspired by a popular TV talk-show figure, Sultane (Ayla Yarkut), a blonde in a glittery dress.
But Azad is saving money to pay for a boat ride to the EU, in a perilous journey that’s ripped from recent headlines. Wails Tamar, “We can’t even afford to cross the Periphery Road!” She prefers to dream of Paris.
As the drama moves back and forth in time — interspliced with Sultane’s TV show, seen both onstage and on projected video — another couple, Bilo and Dilsha (played by Lijesh Krishnan and Sofia Ahmad), narrates the story that connects the two couples.
It’s a story of a poverty-stricken family’s doomed fight against ruthless corporate and governmental forces, a factory that’s slowly poisoning its workers, a desperate attempt to maintain a home — a shack — against all odds.
Prejudice, too, is part of the mix: Dilsha is castigated for her friendship with society’s lowest of the low, a free-spirited gypsy (Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt).
This U.S. premiere, translated by erstwhile local director Evren Odcikin, is a joint production by Golden Thread and Crowded Fire. It’s a departure for Crowded Fire, which usually programs much edgier, more experimental work; “On the Periphery,” although it deals with contemporary issues, has the feel of a fable, with its storytelling structure and occasionally oddly formal-sounding dialogue (“I will buy you a new TV,” Azad assures Tamar, while she gazes at the screen and sighs, “Oh, they are so happy!”).
In Ecer’s writing, the principal characters are all heroic in their fight against the forces of evil. And, despite the satirical TV-show segments, Erin Gilley’s direction, on the whole, emphasizes that quality: There’s a melodramatic sound score (James Ard, designer); a tendency, among some of the actors, toward over-acting that veers toward stereotypes; and, in general, a sentimental atmosphere, which Ecer’s writing seems to call for.
But in today’s world of nonstop global disasters both at home and abroad — the refugee crisis, homelessness and poverty, racism — perhaps a playwright needs to find a fresh and impactful way to touch the nerves of a shell-shocked audience. “On the Periphery” is at times affecting but on the whole offers no truly fresh insight or perspective.
On the Periphery
Presented by Golden Thread Productions/Crowded Fire Theater Company
Where: Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Thursdays–Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes April 4
Tickets: $15 to $50
Contact: goldenthread.org, crowdedfire.org