Border bender

Thick Description's revival of Octavio Solis's El Otro is a trip


Heading south across the Rio Grande, their pants and shoes raised high over their heads, a 13-year-old Mexican American girl named Romy (Maria Candelaria) and her two sort-of fathers — inveterate bad boy Lupe (Sean San José) and straight-laced new stepdad Ben (Johnny Moreno) — wade into the past as their only way forward. In what you could call a return to the repressed, they find themselves in an in-between world of haunted memories and intersecting fates, devilish plans and sweet, unexpected salvation.

This is Octavio Solis territory par excellence, the playwright who for the last three decades has mapped landscapes personal, psychical, and political at once: this is Dreamlandia, or the coma realm where Lydia communes with her counterpart Ceci across space and multiple other barriers. Here, in lyrical, fiercely funny and sublimely violent El Otro — revived, and revised by Solis, as part of Thick Description's 20th anniversary season — Texas and Mexico dissolve in peyote-fueled depths of meaning and contradiction along a border never as solid or sure as anyone thinks. Even the tattoo off her dad Lupe's back (Rhonnie Washington) — a black man in a black cowboy suit riding to the rescue with irrelevant Berlitz Spanish — is anything but two-dimensional.

But back to the setting: it's the 1980s, it's a Monday, it's Reagan's "Morning in America," which is to say it feels like the start and the end of something big. Romy, having lived with Lupe since her mother Nina (a sharp Presciliana Esparolini) left him for good, is getting the hand-off. Nina's new love, Ben, pressed and manly in his private's uniform, has come to pick her up and take her back to her mother. But Lupe isn't willing to let her go that easy, insisting Ben accompany him to retrieve a present he bought her. Lupe's behavior — erratic, coy, in no way to be trusted — worries the private everyone insists on calling "Sarge." But he sees no alternative and does his best to be mature, responsible, and agreeable as both Lupe and Romy gradually reduce him to a shattered mess. What emerges afterward is a secret family history just hinted at before, and a strange, almost surreal plot of atonement-revenge devised by Lupe in cahoots with a rancher (Richard Talavera) and his wife (Wilma Bonet).

In what Thick Description announced will be its last production in its Potrero District black box theater, artistic director Tony Kelly stages the play in stark, bare-bones fashion, the play's moods and settings conveyed largely by the actors, along with choice lighting cues from Rick Martin and flashes of musical coloring courtesy of Vincent Montoya, with Seventy and the Tattooed Love Dogs.

The spare stage gives rein to a fluid pace in sync with the play's consciousness-slipping style, but Kelly's normally very sharp eye seemed less trained than usual at times. The music cues could feel cramped and sometimes engulfed a line or two, and opening night's performances were in some places still gelling. San Jose prowled and shook the stage with a ferocious, concentrated energy and a crisp sardonic wit, but that intensity was matched only part of the time by Moreno's proudly square and increasingly overwhelmed stepdad, or by Candelaria's Romy, who felt initially a bit rote and could be difficult to hear. Both actors came much more to the fore in the second act, however.

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