The Eagles sang of a Hotel California where "you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." The central character in Culture Clash's new comedy cavalcade/agitprop theater piece, "Zorro in Hell," finds himself in a similarly tantalizing yet nightmarish place.
While researching the Zorro myth for a theater script, a snarky writer becomes trapped in an early-California inn with its feisty 200-year-old proprietress, an ancient bellboy who considers himself "the first Chicano" and a talking Bear Flag bear that is a trained therapist-counselor.
It's an outlandish setup meant to make audiences laugh their way toward enlightenment, at which it mostly succeeds, despite a few overindulgences, as it settles into the Ricardo Montalban Theatre after performances at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the La Jolla Playhouse.
"Zorro in Hell" takes its antihero writer figure on a hallucinatory journey toward rebirth as an activist. Along the way, the show -- written by Culture Clashers Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza -- ponders the role of myth and the need for heroes. It co-opts and explodes stereotypes. It rails against U.S. treatment of Latinos as an invisible population. And it issues a call to revolution -- or, at least, the momentary tapping of one's "inner Z."
Compared with the three-man troupe's excursions into community interaction/interview-based theater and the more straightforwardly dramatic, scripted style of last year's "Water & Power," this show is a bit of a throwback to Culture Clash's early sketch-comedy days. The mood is loose and playful. Every joke -- every cultural reference -- that popped into the Clashers' minds has, it would appear, been hurled directly onto the stage.
The story begins with the Homeland Security questioning of a figure restrained by a Hannibal Lecter-style straitjacket and mask. Beneath the Lecter mask is a Zorro mask, and beneath that mask is the writer, played by Montoya. As the ranting scribe struggles to explain what has led him to this moment, the action flashes back to his research activities at the perhaps real/perhaps all-in-his-mind El Camino Real Inn, with its shotgun-toting, gray-ponytailed proprietress, portrayed by guest artist Sharon Lockwood, and her vast array of colorful cohorts, played with shape-shifting skill by Salinas and Siguenza.
The inn setting, designed by Christopher Acebo, evokes the adobe-walled Californio era even as it relies on today's higher-tech world to be able to reconfigure itself on a big turntable.
In this writers' retreat/Dante's Inferno, the scribe is gradually drawn into the world of Zorro movies, which come to life in the flickering light of an old-fashioned projector. The re-creations are wonderfully detail-specific, right down to their swordfights, with guest artist Joseph Kamal channeling the dashing if somewhat campy Zorro of film legend. Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone stages this, and all else, with fun and flair.
The material keeps evolving. The Clashers say the show is 20% different from what it was in La Jolla last fall. As of Wednesday's opening, its references included Joaquin Murrieta, David Beckham, Mayor Villaraigosa, Trader Joe's, Pinkberry, Abu Ghraib, Gov. Schwarzenegger, "Ugly Betty," the MacArthur Park breakup, El Pollo Loco commercials, the war in Iraq and various actions of the Bush administration.
It's a dizzying -- and sometimes bogged-down -- list, but it's sure to please Culture Clash's core constituency. And that core, to judge by the diverse audiences always in attendance, crosses just about every boundary to achieve the all-inclusive, socially engaged world that the troupe has envisioned in show after show.
`Zorro in Hell'
Where: Ricardo Montalban Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Aug. 19
Price: $25 to $55
Contact: (877) EL-ZORRO or www.cultureclash.com
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes