Border bender

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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. And as a first act closer, it’s hard to beat Rhonnie Washington’s entrance as El Charro Negro, one of Solis’ more fanciful and inspired creations and a consistent treat throughout in Washington’s hands (who is back in the saddle after having originated the role in 1996).

Well-pitched performances came too from Lawrence Radecker as Ross, an increasingly light-headed and blood-bespattered cowboy, and Michael Bellino as the border patrol cop wrestling with his backlogged conscience after he catches Mexicans sneaking the wrong way over the river — a real fuse-blower, the sight acts on him like a nonsense rhyme on one of those Star Trek robots with the smoldering ears.

Solis, enjoying an impressive string of productions of late, including last season’s excellent Bay Area premiere of Lydia at Marin Theatre Company, crafted an enduring work in El Otro for all its pop references and rough edges. At the best moments in this admittedly fitful but worthwhile production, the flow of language — mingling flights of poetic revelry, whimsical and nightmare imagery, casual and colorful vulgarity and deadpan humor — seems to hover and soar just over the stage. At the same time, it never loses sight of the ground, and in fact more than once plunges deep into the mud: playing movingly with life and death in the viscous slime and churning waters of that border-defining river.

EL OTRO

Through Sept. 13

Thurs–Sun, 8 p.m., $15–$30

Thick House, 1695 18th St., SF

www.thickhouse.org