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Zorro in Hell at Berkeley Rep

A Hero for Our Troubled Times

When Chicano performance trio Culture Clash were approached by Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Tony Taccone to collaborate on a play that would lampoon California's original masked marauder, they were hesitant at first. Zorro, a dreamy Spanish hero conceived in 1919 by Irish-American writer Johnston McCulley, may have fought for the rights of disenfranchised Mexicans in California, but the pulpy melodrama of Douglas Fairbanks-era films is now, in retrospect, gauche and offensive. All the same, Culture Clash, who are known for their biting, irreverent humor and willingness to take contemporary issues to the hilt, couldn't refuse the opportunity to rewrite a cultural fantasy.

"It's a character that everyone knows, it's as American as the Lone Ranger," explained Culture Clash member Herbert Sigüenza. His fellow performer Ric Salinas, also said that while "Zorro never connected with our era… now we're exploring what Zorro means historically; before the Forty-Niners and after the Franciscans came Zorro."

The cheeky result is Zorro in Hell, which premiered last week at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre. The liberal sprinkling of Bay Area references (Culture Clash were raised in the Mission District), tempered by epigrammatic commentary on current immigration policy and homeland security in the Wild West, is quite catching.

The story centers on a cynical, failed sitcom writer (played by Richard Montoya), who's been given a "multicultural" grant to write a play about Zorro, but finds that his creative juices have all dried up. He stumbles upon El Camino Real, a classic adobe inn shrouded in fantasy and flanked by wheels of dust and brambles and shotgun-toting older women -- one, in this case, played by Sharon Lockwood, a brassy 200-year old innkeeper who inspires and beds the legendary writers who come her way. She and her trusty bellboy, Don Ringo a.k.a. the first Chicano (played by Sigüenza) regale Montoya with swashbuckling yarns about the characters who've blown through the inn over the last umpteen decades.

The introductory dialogue smarts like a whip, and we come to understand that the innkeeper has one goal: to infuse Montoya with the gallant spirit of Zorro (who she insists is just as real as any one of them) so that he can salvage her inn from the land-grabbing cronies of the Governator. A subsequent series of vignettes, earmarked by flamenco flourishes on musician Vincent Montoya's guitar, are centered around Montoya's writer's block. The trio uses the conflicted icon to take a stab at unraveling both his empowering and destructive potential. The cynical Montoya resists embracing his inner Zorro, and understandably so; after all, the manufactured heroism of the sappy character is evident in a wall of toys, lunchboxes, comic books, costumes, and trading cards that the innkeeper proudly stashes behind a wall. But Montoya comes to terms with the paradoxical nature of Zorro (a defender of justice who also happens to be the product of white fantasy), when he finds himself stuck in old movie scenes and quiet suburban neighborhoods where white kids don the Zorro mask and cape. He even digs a little deeper to examine real-life characters Zorro may have been based on, like the subversive poet Joaquin Murrietta.

In the midst of the obvious references to the cultural liquidation of California and its people come presentations of campy old film reels; speedy, mockumentary style reenactments of sword fights; and a host of zany characters that includes shifty friars, the perennial "sleepy Mexican" of old Zorro movies, a talking bear named Kyle, a gay bandit who laments his inability to marry the man he loves, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in a bulldozing mini-Hummer. The purpose of all this mayhem is to place the Zorro myth in the context of Manifest Destiny and the meandering lingua franca of current politics, effectively leveling the do-good role of the romantic hero.

Culture Clash are, needless to say, funny guys, who sprinkle their pastiche of penny dreadfuls and pulpy melodrama with some serious commentary on race and social injustice. The story's pace and framework can be confusing at times, however. The entire tale is recounted through flashbacks and hallucinations. (The story begins when Montoya -- who at this point thinks he's Zorro -- is cross-examined by Men in Black-style associates of the governor, who hurl insults like "Ecoterrorist" and "NPR listener" at him.) Often, a whirl of video projections, indeterminate eras, and overly glib pop culture references detract from the central theme.

The cultural relevance of Zorro often loses itself in the barrage of soliloquies in which the actors take tangential swipes at the Bush administration, the Governator, and even the passel of wealthy, liberal Berkeleyans in the audience. In sum, the scope of Zorro in Hell is simply too ambitious, and the action too spastic and enamored of its own wit for the already-precarious center to hold together.
As an extended variety show with a much slower pace, Zorro in Hell might have been a showstopper. The formula -- a slapstick, aggressive style that's equal parts Benny Hill and MadTV, peppered with plenty of scholarly quips -- works well, in fact. If there was one valuable message I came away with, it's that while the myth of the hero can emblematize the best of our ideals, it also breeds complacency. Culture Clash know, better than most, that we must find our own inner defenders of justice before we can take on the powers that be.

Runs March 7-April 16
at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Tickets: $45- 60