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MTL Alum Greg Sarris' "Citizen" Stage Production Reviewed by SF Chronicle

Photos by Robbie Sweeny/Word for Word

Christian Jimenez, clockwise from front left, Ryan Tasker, Carolina Morones, Lisa Hori-Garcia, Rudy Guerrero in “Citizen.”

From SF Chronicle

Salvador keeps reminding himself to wait and observe. Speak too soon or make a sudden move, and the mysterious beings in this new land of Santa Rosa might eat him alive. But if he restrains himself, he doesn’t just retain his power; dreams might take root and flower in his mind.

Greg Sarris’ “Citizen,” now in a Word for Word production that’s as lush as and penetrating as a Sonoma County grapevine, testifies to the power of keen observation. As with all Word for Word shows, this one transfers a work of literature to the stage without altering a single word of prose. All the bits of narration that you’d think would be deadly in performance — “Marco said,” “El stared absently,” “Salvador felt uneasy” — the company delivers not as a reader’s theater but naturally and inventively, the way a highly trained Shakespearean can make iambic pentameter riddled with archaic references as accessible as corner store gossip.

“Citizen,” which opened Saturday, Oct. 21, at Z Below, is a low-key linguistic feast, nourishing and exhilarating without an ounce of pretension. As Salvador (Christian Jimenez) makes his first journey from Mexico back to his native U.S., ostensibly to visit the new grave of the mother he never knew, Sarris serves up little morsels whose tang keeps prickling. A casket is “green, shiny as a new car.” The facial expression of his Aunt El (L. Duarte) is “as blank as a cabbage.” Skin is “marred by tiny bumps, a colorless rash.”

Salvador, finding himself thrust into the world of day laborers lining up each morning outside a grocery store, brings a newcomer’s gaze to his surroundings, imbuing what might otherwise sound familiar or banal with mystery and wonder. El’s restlessly tapping fingers somehow bode ill. An apartment building “the color of an orange-cream popsicle” looms like an abstract shape. Little everyday gestures of seeming politeness mask cunning or malice. No one can say why; they just do.

The seven cast members, directed by Gendell Hing-Hernández, make choices that burst the text’s juiciness. Duarte as the inscrutable El curls lips the way prizefighters might clench their fists. Rudy Guerrero, as Salvador’s blustery father, seems to inflate his skeletal system on the raging force of his character’s machismo.

Even tiny characters who breeze in and out leave a mark. Carolina Morones fashions a hospital worker who wields a squeaky timbre to deflect angry visitors. Lisa Hori-Garcia, as a nameless rich lady who can discard day laborers as if they’re tissues, offers a master class in acting by fingernail: how to dismissively flick the fingers in a way that tells you everything you need to know about someone.

And then there are all those delightful only-at-Word-for-Word moments where scenes get whipped up then whisked away as fast as an author can imagine them, with actors bringing even inanimate objects to life. They make grapevines curl. They conjure the way energy drinks seem to thrust their way out of convenience store cases and attack your eyeballs. Embodying horses in heat, they prance as if the stable floors are made of burning coals, casting their gaze every which way as if lust has given them googly eyes.

In “Citizen,” though Salvador finds himself plunked into a new life, he seizes ownership of it, beginning by widening his eyes and exercising his imagination. Without explicitly saying so, Sarris’ story chronicles how a young man claims his birthright: not just the Social Security card and driver’s license, but the belief that some American patch of land is yours and you can build something on it, even if you only have the shirt on your back.

Reach Lily Janiak: ljaniak [at] (ljaniak[at]sfchronicle[dot]com)

N“CITIZEN”: Written by Greg Sarris. Directed by Gendell Hing-Hernández. Through Nov. 12. One hour, 40 minutes. $5-$60. Z Below, 470 Florida St., S.F. 415-626-0453.