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Shot in the arm from a sword

`Zorro' brings life back to the once-promising but lately underutilized Ricardo Montalban Theatre.

July 21, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

The Ricardo Montalban Theatre officially opened three years ago, but there's been scarce cause to celebrate until now.

This week the historic Hollywood venue (formerly the Doolittle), which had been underutilized since its ballyhooed opening in May 2004, was finally put to use as intended under its new management -- as a showcase for the best in Latino theater. With Wednesday's premiere of "Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell," a zany bicultural send-up of California history, the Montalban has finally made it on the map of significant cultural sites in Los Angeles.

Now, the challenge will be to keep it there.

Critics may pick apart the play, written and performed by the veteran satiric trio of Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza. But its importance goes beyond its literary or comedic value.

If the theater can keep up the momentum, "Zorro" will be remembered as the play that rescued an important theatrical experiment from imminent failure. It's amazing what one lively evening can do to wipe out the accumulated bad karma of the theater's false start.

"Programs! Get your programs here, sir," announced a man handing out a 28-page playbill for Zorro, featuring a "Borat" takeoff for a subtitle: "Cultural Learnings of Early California for Make Benefit Glorious Gringo Nation of Aztlan." Inside, the booklet includes a timeline of Zorro films spoofed during the play, from 1920's "The Mark of Zorro" with Douglas Fairbanks to 2005's "The Legend of Zorro" starring Antonio Banderas.

This was a casual Hollywood premiere, with no limousine arrivals or searchlights sweeping the night sky, as when the theater staged a flashy opening -- a bit of a false start -- in 2004. A couple of celebrities on Wednesday just mixed in with the crowd -- actor Esai Morales chatting on his cellphone and actor-comedian Garrett Morris (of "Saturday Night Live" fame) hanging out by the bar.

There was a cheerful mood among those who mingled in the packed lobby with its bright red carpet and busy bar decked with lighted glass blocks.

In that opening-night atmosphere, memories of mismanagement and missed opportunities seemed to dissolve.

After the Montalban's premiere, many people were disappointed in its failure to fulfill its promise as a place where Latino talent in theater arts could flourish: Serious financial troubles threatened to sink the theater if it didn't get its act together.

With its business and legal affairs in disarray, the theater had no means to stage large-scale productions and the restored building often went underutilized.

Since then, several people stepped forward to steer the faltering Ricardo Montalban Foundation, the nonprofit that runs the theater, including artistic director Margarita Cannon and creative director Gilbert Smith, Montalban's son-in-law. The big smiles on their faces before the show reflected the night's optimistic spirit.

Cannon called it a coup to get Culture Clash, whose previous works have been staged at the Mark Taper Forum. But it took a full-court press to convince the famed troupe that the Montalban was ready for them, considering its inadequate electrical systems, faulty air-conditioning and nonexisting lighting.

Even after the deal was signed, however, it was no easy matter "to load a show into an old rickety theater where nothing works," said David Llauger-Meiselman, a producer and director with the Ricardo Montalban Repertory Theatre Company, who helped coordinate the play's technical aspects.

In order to get enough power for Zorro's rotating stage, the theater had to call in its grizzled former electrician to tap the main power box, which nobody else would touch, Llauger-Meiselman said. Now, the theater has got some of the upgraded infrastructure it needed, thanks to a masked man named Zorro.

"In a sense, this theater was a shell before they came in," observed producer-director-playwright Theresa Chavez of About Productions, who attended with husband Oscar Garza, editor of the Latino monthly Tu Ciudad. "My concern is: What's coming in after this?"

Not to worry, said Smith. Dressed in coat and tie but perched casually on a cabinet in the cramped office, the theater's creative director ticked off plans for a building expansion and the first full season of productions in 2008.

"There's an adrenaline that kicks in," said Smith, who's married to Montalban's third child, Anita. "And that feeling of a family working together, it's starting to take shape now. We're in this for the long haul."

On the theater's tentative agenda in coming months: "Viva Zapata," a musical from Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino; "Virgin Love," a musical comedia set in the 17th century produced by the Montalban repertory company; and a Shakespearean play by Will & Company, the Montalban's other resident ensemble.

"It continues to be a struggle," concludes Cannon, who was company manager for the musical "Selena," which lost $1 million in 2001. "The theater can be a big white elephant that's heavy to carry -- or it can carry us."

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