The father of all masked superheroes, Zorro first appeared in California in 1919, in serial form, brought to life by pulp writer Johnston McCulley. Soon afterward, the suave, playful Zorro (the secret identity of the decidedly unglamorous Don Diego Vega) became an enduring international phenomenon, thanks to screen legend Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and continues to evolve in a slew of films, TV shows, and comic books — up to and including a new Isabel Allende novel and a forthcoming musical scored by the Gipsy Kings.
A new wave of anti-immigrant demonizing and criminalization under way nationwide makes all the more obvious the urgency behind the breezy but pointed comedy Zorro in Hell, Culture Clash’s beautifully staged romp in black leather, mask, and cape, in a coproduction with La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Rep and deftly helmed by the Rep’s artistic director, Tony Taccone. If it took the LA-based, Mission District–bred Latino political-comedy troupe (composed of Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Sigüenza) 22 years of writing and performing to finally tackle the mythical Hispanic crime fighter, their timing couldn’t have been better.
But is Zorro to be considered an authentic pop-cultural or folk hero despite his conflicted origins in mass entertainment, ethnic stereotype, and pseudohistory? The trio’s own initial ambivalence serves as an engine for Zorro in Hell‘s critical but redemptive excavation of the myth at a time when resurrected rebel heroes, as spurs to mass action, seem to be the order of the day (very Z for Vendetta, in other words, and little wonder the Wachowski Brothers’ film is one of myriad cultural reference points bandied around to nice effect here).
The story centers on a frustrated LA writer and nominal Latino (Montoya) who’d prefer to be penning sitcoms but, meanwhile, has an “other voices” grant to write a play about the Zorro legend. He arrives at the El Camino Real Inn less than enthusiastic about a subject he considers culturally specious and politically irrelevant and meets a couple of larger-than-life characters who take it upon themselves to set him straight: the 200-year-old proprietress (a feisty, very funny Sharon Lockwood) and her ancient bellhop, Don Ringo (Sigüenza), proudly self-described as “the first Chicano.” Together, their careers seem to touch (literally in the case of Doña’s countless love affairs) upon most of California’s cultural history.
Cracking open the Zorro legend (given stage form by a versatile and amusing Joseph Kamal) sets in play a whole history and rebel tradition peopled by names like Ambrose Bierce, William Saroyan, Jack London, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Sacco and Vanzetti, Marx, Nietzsche, and, of course, the Scarlet Pimpernel (likely inspiration for McCulley’s masked avenger). Other references are more off the wall, or off the flag, as in the case of a talking grizzly named Kyle (Salinas), an erudite bear offering the slightly spooked, drug-addled writer some talking-cure in a charmingly professional bedside manner. Then there’s legendary outlaw Joaquin Murieta (Salinas again), the incarnation of crafty but principled revenge: “I taught myself to walk, talk, drink like them. But I never murdered like them.” The writer’s own transformation includes entering an old Zorro movie in the part of the archetypal “sleepy Mexican,” who, in this radical reappropriation of cultural capital, we’re told, is more like a sleeping giant beneath the wide brim of his tilted sombrero.
Doña has an ulterior motive behind all this consciousness-raising: She needs help fending off the imminent threat brought by land-snatching developers in league with the evil Gobernador, who naturally arrives by Humvee. (As the Latinos who voted against their own interests by helping to elect an action movie icon demonstrate, the superhero sword can cut both ways.)
Charming, sharp, and frequently wacky, the cutting jokes, quips, and allusions in Zorro come at a remarkable clip (a breathless 20 rpms, or references per minute, at least). All of it unfurls amid Christopher Acebo’s colorful, kinetic, and multifaceted scenic design; some zesty swordplay choreographed by fight director Dave Maier; and appropriately dramatic on- and offstage musical accompaniment by guitarist Vincent Christopher Montoya as the swashbuckling movies of yesterday spill onto the stage, and the stage antics of Culture Clash and company, in turn, transform into cleverly refashioned celluloid dreams projected onto a massive movie screen.
And so, with rapier wit, Culture Clash leaves its own mark on the Zorro legend, proving the pun to be mightier than the sword and the myth capable of new, subversive energies in a reactionary age. It might be that its sprawling, garrulous nature fails, in the end, to lay the best ground for the play’s final call to arms (at least the culminating “rise up!” segment feels a bit forced and tends to drag on), but no matter: Hundreds of thousands of Latinos and others are already in the streets of LA and other cities across the country. Zorro may or may not be a myth with real political traction, but either way, justice, as Zorro would be the first to tell you, is a do-it-yourself job.
CULTURE CLASH’S ZORRO IN HELL
Through April 16
Tues., Thurs.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Wed., 7 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.
Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater
2015 Addison, Berk.
(510) 647-2949 or (888) 427-8849