With film versions starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and a 2005 novel by Isabelle Allende being developed into a musical set to open in 2007, the legend of Zorro is alive and well.
The masked man has been the subject of 50 films, nine television series, hundreds of comic books and dozen of novels, in addition to the original 65 tales written by Johnston McCulley. Now add a theatrical production to the mix, with "Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell," playing at La Jolla Playhouse through Oct. 29.
The Latino/Chicano theater group Culture Clash, made up of Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, has been performing standup comedy, sketch, monologues, performance art and full-length plays for 22 years. The troupe is known for its politically infused satire and comedy.
"Zorro" had its world premiere earlier this year at the Berkeley Rep, which co-produced the show along with Zorro Productions Inc. Mixing theater, multimedia, vaudeville and performance art, the show is like a sitcom on crack. The one-liners, character and costume changes come fast and furious, barely pausing to let this limber cast of six breathe.
The Clashers deconstruct the Zorro myth and, along the way, tackle with satirical glee such topical issues as eminent domain, civil rights and the war on terror, as well as cultural identity, California history and the power of mythology and individuals.
A lot of ground to cover? You bet. Though the cast -- which includes Joseph Kamal, Sharon Lockwood and Christopher Montoya -- may be cohesive, the unwieldy script isn't always. It often feels more like a collection of skits than a play.
The story starts with a bound and masked man (Montoya) being interrogated by two men-in-black types. "Who are you really? Why did you threaten the governor?" they ask (think terrorism, the Patriot Act, disintegrating civil liberties). The mysterious man's inevitable answer: "I'm Zorro." He's even got his own guitar flourish. But, he says, he was once a normal Chicano ...
Flashback to a nameless writer who appears at an old adobe inn. He's gotten a grant -- on the merit of being "a Latino with one leg shorter than the other" -- to write a play about Zorro, a topic he has zero interest in. His research has brought him to the inn, run by a sassy 200-Year-Old Woman (Lockwood) who's had literary greats throughout history in and out of her lodge (and her bed). Then add flashback upon flashback, old Zorro films and drug-induced hallucinations for a madcap romp through the space-time continuum of early California.
A host of zany characters pop in and out of the story, including a therapist bear named Kyle, a pair of puckish cowpokes of flexible sexual orientation, the invisible and once-ubiquitous Sleeping Mexican, bandito-hero-poet Joaquin Murrieta and the ancient Don Ringo, who takes any opportunity to strike a pose and proclaim, "I'm the first Chicano!"
But the Clashers don't get all the fun. Lockwood plays the gritty, brassy hotel proprietress with a fiery, commanding presence, and Kamal gets to play the original swashbuckler and his fandango-dancing dandy alter ego.
The 200 Year-Old Woman and her cronies attempt to get the spineless hack of a writer to don the mask and help her retain her land -- she being the victim of the Governator's land grab via eminent domain.
Oh, but why bother with the barely there plot? It all moves toward the predictable "find your inner Zorro" conclusion.
The treat is in the telling. We get hilarious one-liners, sight gags, shtick, political quips, cultural kitsch and an extended game of "name that reference" delivered at breakneck speed under Tony Taccone's direction. We get the spectacle of Christopher Acebo's delicious pueblo-style sets, Christal Weatherly's kicky costumes and dazzling lighting and video design by Alexander V. Nichols. And we get the impeccable Lockwood.
But what we don't get too much of is the "agitation" in agitprop, though the propaganda is left largely intact. Montoya's final call to arms -- to stand up for education, multiculturalism and agitprop theater, and to stand up against affronts to civil liberties, social injustice and the fear machine that is government -- seems little more than tricking the audience into a standing ovation.
While it's doubtful that "Zorro" will inspire revolution or political action -- there's a modest chance for a Google search on Joaquin Murrieta -- the show is good for a hearty laugh and a few sharp political pokes at current administrations.
PROGRAM: "Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell"
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Dates: Through Oct. 29
Show times: Tuesdays-Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays-Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.
Location: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, on campus at UCSD
More information: (858) 550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.com