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THEATER REVIEW

Mark of this `Zorro' is just silliness

October 06, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

La Jolla residents can sleep easier now that Zorro has landed on their shores. But they probably shouldn't cancel their home security systems just yet. The swashbuckling icon doesn't have his usual mojo.

To tell the truth, he seems a little unsure of himself, as though there were something outdated and maybe a little culturally dubious about his identity. He has also developed a weird penchant for political shtick, as though he'd rather be at some comedy club riffing on Dick Cheney's hunting skills. And did Douglas Fairbanks or any of the other masked avengers ever make such a big deal about being Latino?

Yes, my friends, Culture Clash has indeed retrieved the old black cape from Hollywood storage, but not for the usual crusading adventure. In "Zorro in Hell," the group's still-evolving frolic that opened Wednesday at the La Jolla Playhouse, the action hero must contend with a challenge far more daunting than stagecoach robbers. His self-appointed task is to reclaim California from the hands of another film legend, the one who frequently drops the phrase "girlie man" in a bulging Austrian accent and drives around onstage in a mini Hummer whose license plate reads "Termn8tr."

Sounds like this latest Zorro has a pretty tough fight ahead of him. So why is he locked down in a psychiatric ward and attended to by a horror-flick nurse obsessed with suppositories? Scarier still, he has two Secret Service agents breathing down his neck, one calling him an "NPR listener," the other threatening him with water-boarding in Guantanamo.

Culture Clash's radical setup gives way to a drawn-out and increasingly silly explanation. The man who believes he's Zorro because he keeps hearing guitar flourishes goes by the nickname Clasher (Richard Montoya). A writer who won a "multi-culti" grant given to Latinos with one leg shorter than the other, he was once a normal screenplay-pushing Angeleno, but life changed as he began researching a new drama about Zorro at the El Camino Real Inn.

This historic artist colony is presided over by a 200-year-old woman (played by San Francisco Mime Troupe vet Sharon Lockwood) who has intimately coaxed masterpieces from nearly every male genius since Karl Marx. The ancient yet still spry proprietress calls herself "the true keeper of the sacred Zorro myth and legend" -- and has the lunchboxes, school bags and DVDs to prove it.

She'll need assistance from her staff if she's to inspire Clasher to pick up the mantle of a figure he considers a gringo fraud. Given the state of emergency (the Governor's land policies threaten her historic inn), she'll be forced to call on Don Ringo (Herbert Siguenza), the self-proclaimed "first Chicano," and Kyle (Ric Salinas), a therapist grizzly bear with highbrow philosophical tastes and lowbrow sexual proclivities that don't deserve recapping.

The ensuing goofiness represents a choppier blend of sketch comedy and dramatic storytelling than Culture Clash's "Water & Power," the potboiler of Los Angeles power politics that premiered at the Mark Taper Forum this summer. The incessant jokiness of "Zorro in Hell" seems more in keeping with the group's stand-up origins, with every narrative step requiring a toll of four or five zingers.

The punch lines are delivered with crack timing, and many are quite daring in their sentiments. In garnering laughs, Culture Clash nobly refuses to pull punches. Yet stretched out over two acts of harebrained inanity, the humor can't conceal that 45 minutes of material is being fluffed to an ungainly two hours.

The production, directed by Berkley Repertory artistic director Tony Taccone (who mounted the premiere last spring at his theater), moves as nimbly as it possibly can. There's no dawdling allowed on the stage, which has been stunningly punctuated with Mexican American artistry by set designer Christopher Acebo.

Alexander V. Nichols' darkened atmospheric lighting and especially impressive black-and-white video footage of Zorro outtakes create a theatrical universe that sometimes seems larger and more self-contained than the script.

And there's no denying that the trio of performers who make up Culture Clash know how to seduce an audience with clownish everyman charm. Their smiling way of insulting President Bush probably could sneak under the radar of even the staunchest Republican loyalists.

But perhaps it's the massaging nature of the work that takes out some of the satiric bite. "Zorro in Hell" wants to keep us giggling so we're never bored or offended. Consequently we're never too agitated either, which should be the ultimate aim for a self-described piece of agitprop.

Inspired by the recent immigrant rallies, Culture Clash wants us to recognize that at a politically imperiled time we must rise up to become our own Zorros. Good point. No need to administer it with an endless parade of mind-softening guffaws.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

*

`Zorro in Hell'

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 29

Price: $34 to $56

Contact: (858) 550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.com

Running time: 2 hours

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