Two Otherworldly Immigrant Tales Unfold in 'The Supers' and 'Retablos' at Z Space

The Supers lands at Z Space with an ensemble of superlative clowns. (Fernando Gamberoni)

Since taking over the Theatre Artaud space in 2009, Z Space has presented and produced a wide spectrum of disciplines and narrative techniques. From rock operas to lyric operas, cabaret to Kathak, innovative touring companies to local playwrights, Z Space is a place one goes to experience outside-of-the-box theatricals.

This past weekend, I camped out at Z Space and its companion venue, Z Below, to experience its wide variety with two world premieres that are worlds apart: The Supers, by Sara Moore, and Retablos, by Word for Word.

A multi-dimensional, multi-media expedition, The Supers unfolds across a playfully conceptualized universe. Propelled by a cinematic score composed by Rob Reich, and accompanied by videos of colorful constellations designed by director Colin Johnson, a quintet of mostly non-verbal clowns hurtle through space in search of sanctuary. After losing one of their party—the presumptive hero, Jess, played by writer of the show and Director of the Clown Conservatory at Circus Center, Sara Moore—the remaining four land on Earth to start over.

Sara Moore, Maureen McVerry, Guilhem Milhau, DeMarcello Funes and Kaylamay Paz Suarez discover electricity. (Fernando Gamberoni)

A now-leaderless collective of outcasts, each has a signature source of power. Helena (Maureen McVerry), an older spinster in power reds, displays a penchant for torch songs. The deceptively sweet Oopsy (Kaylamay Paz Suarez) packs a powerful punch and totes a marshmallow-shooting rifle. The plaid-clad Charlie (Guilhem Milhau) generates electricity from his fingertips. And the fatigue-wearing Edgar (DeMarcello Funes) has traveled the universe, gathering experiences and hoarding oranges. Though they frequently react with skittish, fearful energy at the many obstacles they encounter on their journey, they manage to stick together, and stand up for themselves when it counts.

Their Earthly immigrant experience begins like so many: by crowding into a rundown tenement of cramped single-occupancy rooms (courtesy of Katie Whitcraft and Jacque Bugler) run by a suspicious curmudgeon in coveralls (Adam Roy). As they figure out their daily routines, they’re spied upon, threatened, and have their possessions stolen by the increasingly paranoid “Super” whose rage contorts his body in every direction. At times he appears to be made of convulsive silly-putty, his limbs appearing to elongate and contract with his acrimony. His unfortunate companion, Waldo (Joel Baker), does his best to keep his equilibrium under the Super’s erratic onslaughts, showing off his superlative ability to keep a straight face.

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That each character is able to convey so much of their backstory non-verbally—assisted by some key animated sequences—is The Supers ecstatic superpower. And while it’s not always clear how each vignette connects to the next, the plucky performances occasionally becoming overwhelmed by the force of the immersive soundscape, this vibrant and colorful “human cartoon” admirably showcases its whimsical ensemble with genuine heart.

Sara Moore, Maureen McVerry, Guilhem Milhau, DeMarcello Funes and Kaylamay Paz Suarez confronting a fear. (Fernando Gamberoni)

An immigrant experience more rooted on Earth, though refracted through the gently blurred lens of reminiscence, is Octavio Solis’ Retablos, a collection of short stories set in the El Paso of Solis’ childhood. Staged by Z Space’s resident theater company, Word for Word, each tale unfolds against a stunning backdrop of mountains and ominously looming clouds (set design Nina Ball, Scenic Artisan Vola Rubens) in a shimmering mélange of memories and emotion. A stooped old woman crosses the border to sweep floors and feed children who do not yet understand what she must have sacrificed to be their caretaker, a Mexican-American immigration officer terrorizes the local teenagers, a macho father struggles to apologize to his son for his missteps, a hungry child drinks a bottle of turpentine—yet lives.

A family moment with Regina Morales, Gabriel Montoya, Brady Morales-Woolery and Carla Gallardo. (Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec)

As fans of Word for Word already know, and new converts to the method via Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz (playing at Berkeley Rep until March 1) may wish to, the stories in Solis’ poetic, episodic memoir are spoken exactly as written on the page, with every “dice ella/she said” integrated into the actor’s lines. In rotation, the actors in Word for Word’s production enact the spoken text with measured grace, trading roles as they go. One story might be narrated by the youthful Edie Flores, whose rakish pompadour sweeps high above his perpetually startled-looking eyes. Another might issue from Gabriel Montoya, whose maturity tinges his storytelling with the inescapable weight of melancholy. Altogether, an ensemble of eight paints a portrait of as El Paso as delicate and intricate as an altar piece, or retablo.

Because most of the stories take place in the past, co-directors Sheila Balter and Jim Cave use the stylistic framing of a “memory play” to bolster their directing choices. Assisted greatly by the saturated secondary colors of Jeff Rowlings’ lighting and the flowing musical interludes and key effects of David R. Molina’s sound design, Solis’ El Paso floats to the surface, as if emerging from a subterranean consciousness.

At the Quinceañera, with the cast of 'Retablos' at Z Below. (Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec)

In an illustrative vignette, a teenager (Edie Flores) at a Quinceañera finds himself dancing, not with the girl he’d been flirting with the night before, but her sullen sister (Carla Gallardo), who’s encumbered by a leg brace. Recalling the classic Tennessee Williams “memory play,” The Glass Menagerie, the scene spins by in a whirl of dimmed light, the lurching burden of the brace, the tender moment where Flores becomes aware of Gallardo’s breath at his shoulder. Throughout, the music takes on a muffled, distorted quality, while the LED-laden DJ Ball fills the room with prismatic flashes of light, giving the entire scene an otherworldly incandescence—until the kicker of an earthy last line.

Memory, like dream, is as fleeting as it is mutable. We can never be certain that our memories are completely accurate, and yet we insist on revisiting them, retelling them, and revising them in a continual compilation of our own mythology. By honoring the page as it is written, Word for Word is able to allow Solis’ singular mythology to take center stage, his lush recollections materializing briefly, one by one, only to slip away leaving the audience with an embodied experience of a singular El Paso, melding with our own unreliable remembrances in the realm of reverie.

Regina Morales as the Virgen de Guadalupe, in 'Retablos,' at Z Below. (Lorenzo Fernandez-Kopec)

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'The Supers' runs at Z Space through Feb. 29; details here. 'Retablos' runs at Z Below through March 15; details here.