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Facing Another Culture Clash

Theater* Best known as part of a comedy trio, Herbert Siguenza goes solo in an attempt to finally give Cantinflas crossover success.

September 25, 2002|AGUSTIN GURZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Actor Herbert Siguenza is leaning over a narrow counter in a backstage dressing room, coming face to face with himself in the mirror. The comedian is 43, balding, lumpy around the middle, and about to take on the role of a lifetime.

This is opening night for "eforeCantinflas!"--a new play about the renowned Mexican funnyman written and performed by Siguenza, who is taking a leave from the Los Angeles-based, satirical comedy trio Culture Clash. In less than an hour, he'll make his solo debut at his hometown's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, performing for the first time without his comedic cohorts of 18 years. His partners, Richard Montoya and Ric Salinas, at this moment are in Washington, D.C., for the latest Culture Clash production, which Siguenza co-wrote but which is going on without him.

"It's really scary for me to carry a show on my own," Siguenza says. "Since I don't have the other two guys, the whole weight is on me now."

And Siguenza didn't make it easy on himself by taking on a veritable legend. Cantinflas is a classic of Mexican cinema, a comedic character as identified with the mestizo nation as Woody Allen is with New York.

Created by the late actor Mario Moreno, the Cantinflas character captured the dreams and frustrations of the working-class everyman, the humble shoeshine boy who stood up to corrupt politicians, the uneducated street urchin who could talk his way out of any predicament with a torrent of words that sounded highfalutin enough to confuse his adversaries.

Cantinflas has been called the Mexican Charlie Chaplin, but his appeal is not relegated to some silent-film memory. He remains as relevant to Mexicans today as he was in his heyday of the 1940s and '50s. As lovable as Red Skelton's Freddie the Freeloader, as witty and outrageous as Groucho Marx's Captain Spaulding, as gracefully slapstick as Jackie Gleason's Ralph Cramden, Mario Moreno's Cantinflas had no peers in the annals of Mexican comedy.

The character's appeal knew no borders in the Spanish-speaking world, resonating naturally with Siguenza's Salvadoran mother, for example, who attended the debut in a sequined dress.

Cantinflas attracted Siguenza's attention for his human qualities: "for being good and being moral and being upright and never letting things get you down and being happy with what you have."

Siguenza prepared for more than two years for this moment. He watched Cantinflas movies until early hours of the morning. He studied the Mexican comedian's quirky gestures, nervous as a hummingbird, agile as a bullfighter. He dissected his Spanish speech pattern, so uniquely nonsensical that it earned a place in the dictionary. Cantinflando, we learn in Siguenza's clever, biographical script, means to talk a lot while saying very little.

In real life, Siguenza looks nothing at all like the character he's about to re-create--Cantinflas' wily and noble tramp called "El Peladito." That's what makes his imminent transformation all the more amazing. Calmly, the actor applies his own makeup. He accentuates the comical Cantinflas mustache, two pathetic patches at the sides of the mouth. He puts on the baggy, low-slung trousers, barely held up with a rope for a belt. He dons a disheveled wig on his shaved head, then finally puts on the cockeyed, undersized hat that was a trademark of Mexico's most beloved movie character.

"Cantinflas was never a victim," Siguenza says of the persona he has come to inhabit so well. "He was smarter than the rich guy. He would outwit society. And he was never exploited. In all of his movies, he would fight, fight, fight."

American audiences knew Cantinflas best as Passepartout, the bumbling but resourceful valet of David Niven's aristocratic Phileas Fogg in the Oscar-winning 1956 movie, "Around the World in Eighty Days." The film, which earned Moreno one of two career Golden Globe awards, marks the opening of Act II in Siguenza's two-act, almost two-hour tribute.

Cantinflas starred in only one other English-language film, the disappointing "Pepe" in 1960. In Siguenza's play, an aging Moreno, who had become a fabulously wealthy and well-connected celebrity, reminisces with a female reporter about the pain of his unrealized Hollywood dreams.

His main problem was the language, he says in English to the admiring foreign journalist. His comedy, so grounded in double meanings, flowery excesses and deliberate misunderstandings, was too hard to translate.

To prove the point, Siguenza's Moreno does a brief Groucho impersonation in Spanish, using a famous line ("That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard") that falls flat in translation. "See, it doesn't work," admits the dejected old comedian.

Honored in His Language

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