They've given us vaudeville, savage social commentary, and an oddly moving breakdown of how salsa is performed by dancers of different nationalities. What the Culture Clash comedy troupe has been missing is sword fights and men in bear suits. Now we get that too in the world premiere of Zorro in Hell at the Berkeley Rep, a buoyant full-length play that exhorts us to "think globally and act Zorrolly."
A nameless writer (Richard Montoya) has retired to a mysterious inn to knock off a play about Zorro. He's not serious about it he has to justify a grant he won because he's a "Latino writer with one leg shorter than the other." However the proprietor (Sharon Lockwood, tough as Pacific Madrone) has very strong feelings on the matter, feelings she's happy to express with a shotgun. Namely she disagrees with the writer on the question of Zorro's reality. Before he can say "Hotel California" the writer finds that he's effectively trapped until he comes around to La Doa's point of view, while around him things have a habit of turning without warning into movies and his sanest companion is a blogging bear named Kyle.
Kind of true to the recent Banderas version of the Zorro story, La Doa and her friend Don Ringo set out to turn an undisciplined, disaffected young man into a hero. Not at all true to any of the versions, there's also a hilarious Apocalypse Now sequence, a nod to The Matrix, and, uh, bearbacking. Meanwhile, audience members may find themselves booing a villain in gold-painted dishwashing gloves, singing along as a little Zorro is taken to the big rancho in the sky by an angel-winged full-sized Zorro, and possibly getting slapped by an actor.
The result is a literate slapstick, raunchy and hectic. The original Zorro did not quote Borges while climbing to the balcony, and we don't expect characters with names like Whiskey Pete to drop Nietszche and Thoreau while they stash loot in the safe behind a painting of the dogs playing poker. But as the writer's hosts explain, every generation creates their own heroes, and this generation needs their Zorro to have a little more on the ball than Douglas Fairbanks (either one) did. This thing's thick with allusions to high culture and low.
Johnston McCulley appears to have gotten the idea for the original caped crusader (Zorro predates both Batman and Superman) from the Scarlet Pimpernel a work CC references right up front but in the second act, the case is made that the infamous real-life poet and outlaw Joaquín Murrieta (Ric Salinas, in one of the play's few downbeat moments) might also have been a Zorro. The Murrieta section's a little drawn-out, but then explaining him takes some doing, as the tangle of contradictory accounts could be a movie all its own. It's got all the Hollywood elements a gentle man pushed to terrible vengeance when his wife is attacked, the posse hunting him, his pickled head disappearing in San Francisco during the quake of '06.
The Murrieta history is a new element in the mix, but there are several concepts and images drawn from their earlier work the Sleepy Mexican, people getting flogged and liking it (The Mission), Montoya in a straitjacket, even having Montoya and Salinas in a big unexpected smooch (Stand and Deliver Pizza). This isn't the first time for the "First Chicano" either, but watching Herbert Sigüenza leaning back and proclaiming "I am the first Chee-caaaaahno!" is so funny that a little recycling doesn't hurt.
The technical side's perfectly splendid, from Alexander Nichols' projections and the multifaceted set, to the rhinestone detailing on one of the Don Diego suits (that would be the lavender one, la the "swishbuckling" George Hamilton, Zorro the Gay Blade). Scrims, lighting, the live and recorded musical accompaniment: the design is slick, and Tony Taccone's direction sure-footed.
Back in 1991's Bowl of Beings, their characters kept repeating the line, "I'm confused and full of rage." Fifteen years later, they certainly don't seem to be confused; where many of their earlier shows were built of sketches showcasing their individual talents (Sigüenza's mimicry, Salinas' dancing, Montoya's poetry), this is a real play-play, with scenes and story arc and everything. Yet the high-tech set and regional-theater ticket prices haven't dulled the CC blade. The collective is still unabashedly political, mercilessly and merrily skewering anything that gets too close. Because they still have reason to be full of rage. The same week Zorro opened, half a million people marched in LA against Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner's suggestion that the illegal immigration issue can be solved by building a 700-mile-long wall, and Bush proposed a 2007 budget that would cut the $33 million for urban Indian health clinics. J Lo and Eva Longoria aside, the American promise still doesn't extend to the people who were here first.
Zorro in Hell is not just funny, but a trenchant critique of how we define terrorism and a call to arms. Where previous shows have been more descriptive, this one's more prescriptive: put on your mask and rise up to defend the dream of California. The wordplay's as fast as the swordplay, making for a rich and Chuy treat full of one-liners and puns. Ah, chewy. Now I'm doing it too. Nosotros todos somos Zorro, indeed.
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