Theater Reviews

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Ricardo Montalban Theatre, Hollywood
Through Aug. 19


Try as it occasionally might, "Zorro in Hell!" is not really a play. It's more like a kind of history lesson that a creatively goofy high school of the performing arts class might have concocted. It features a sophomoric seriousness of purpose, provocative hijinks and the relentless use of stock dramatic elements, including running jokes from a prehistoric character named Don Ringo and a fantasy one named Kyle the Bear.

But when Culture Clash stops trying to be profoundly philosophical, or having fun at the expense of the continuing resonance of the Zorro character in Chicano (and Anglo) culture, they have trouble dismissing the disheartening, occasionally ugly parallels in 21st century California they seem to stumble upon with disconcertingly impressive ease.

Somewhere beneath the mock melodramatic posturing, the academic pretensions (which take the form of an ongoing and extremely wordy polemical debate among the characters -- not excluding the Bear -- about the nature of writers and writing) and the frequent political potshots (with the president getting by far the evening's biggest disapproving roar, rivaled in intensity only by the responses to Los Angeles' Cardinal Roger Mahoney and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa), the activist heart of Culture Clash beats strong and unforgiving. It may be less outwardly angry than it was at its birth in 1984, but it also is speaking to a wider and more sophisticated audience who are realizing they will soon be the leaders Californians look to for cultural role models. Judging by the TV trucks stationed outside the opening, the media also is getting the message.

The young and beautiful audience reacted enthusiastically if unpredictably to the nonstop barrage of references to such disparate topics as the California Institute of the Arts, writer Charles Bukowski, Ricardo Montalban himself, immigration, American Indians and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Because Clash has empowered its version of the Zorro myth to be so wide-ranging in its cultural and political references (in the program book, the Culture Clash members say the play reminds them "a bit" of "Dante's Inferno"), there is very purposefully something here for everybody. And whether an increasingly mainstream Culture Clash can still claim to be "activists and all-around troublemakers," the sight of founding member Richard Montoya at the end of the play climbing the scaffolding surrounding the stage and calling out for action is a reminder of what political activism used to be.

In such a promiscuously extravagant presentation, which includes four dream sequences re-creating cinematic treatments of Zorro from Douglas Fairbanks to Grant Williams, the acting is of variable quality. Sharon Lockwood updates the genius of legendary, hoarse-voiced character actor Marjorie Main, and Herbert Siguenza isn't far behind as an eccentric embodiment of California's pre-Anglo swashbuckling past.

However, Montoya as Clasher -- a writer whose quest for a story leads him into a surrealistic world of racism, surprisingly self-deprecating sexism and other deeply painful "isms" that he has trivialized in his own life -- has some of the mock-amateurish charm (and wise-cracking skills) of a young Woody Allen. After intermission, he becomes more self-assured and delivers the lengthy pleas for justice and self that close the show with something approaching eloquence.

Without ever seeming repressive or oppressive, director Tony Taccone does a remarkably precise job of holding together what could easily become incoherent, in the process liberating the cast to reach effectively across the footlights.

Christopher Acebo's organically integrated scrims, projection screens and beautifully designed movable backdrops, enhanced by Alexander V. Nichols' lighting, are almost worth the price of admission. And Vincent Christopher Montoya's music enlivens the proceedings without ever becoming memorable.

CULTURE CLASH'S ZORRO IN HELL!
Produced by Zorro Prods., Islas Prods. and Culture Clash
Credits:
Creators-writers: Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas. Herbert Siguenza)
Director: Tony Taccone
Original music: Vincent Christopher Montoya
Set designer: Christopher Acebo
Lighting designer: Alexander V. Nichols
Costume designer: Christal Weatherly
Sound designer: Robbin E. Broad
Cast:
Clasher: Richard Montoya
Kyle the Bear: Ric Salinas
Don Ringo: Herbert Siguenza
Zorro: Joseph Kamal
200-Year-Old Woman: Sharon Lockwood
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