Zorro in Hell, presented by Culture Clash.
At the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Saturday, March 18.
Reviewed by Carlos Morton
The comedy troupe Culture Clash, currently performing Zorro in Hell at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, returns to the Bay Area where the group originated 22 years ago. Zorro, invented in 1919 by Anglo author Johnston McCulley, was a Spanish folk hero who defended the Mexican people of California.
It’s ironic that Zorro was always battling a deceitful foreign-born politician named “El Gobernador.”
The protagonist of this play is a failed sitcom writer commissioned to write a Zorro play, acted with sardonic wit by Richard Montoya. He checks into the mysterious Camino Real Inn run by a 200-year-old woman, played with great exuberance by former San Francisco Mime Troupe member Sharon Lockwood. There is also a bellboy dressed like a Spanish Grandee named Don Ringo (master mimic Herbert Siguenza), who proudly calls himself “the first Chicano.”
The hotel turns out to be a cultural clash museum where California history comes to life. The writer learns that the 200-year-old woman not only slept with an assortment of famous writers (William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill) but also “dramaturged the fuck outta” many of their works.
The lady becomes a literary muse who takes us through an assortment of Zorro movies starring, among others, Douglas Fairbanks and Tyrone Power. We also meet Mexican Jack, Whiskey Pete, Joaquin Murrieta (a historical Mexican bandito who inspired Zorro), a sleepy Mexican named Pancho Jr., a gay Castilian Friar, and Kyle — a California bear (Ric Salinas) who engages in rough sex with the protagonist to free him of writer’s block. And all of this is in the first act!
The second act begins with two chubby boys from the ’50s with masks and capes, making Z’s on the walls of their suburban minds. Zorro is a myth that won’t die; there have been recent revivals by actor Antonio Banderas and writer Isabel Allende, and a new ballet at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, as well as a stage musical in London by the Gipsy Kings.
The script could use some dramaturgical editing by the 200-year-old lady (there are too many characters and tangents), although director Tony Taccone guides us expertly through the labyrinth of California history. Kudos to Christopher Acebo, Christal Weatherly, Alexander Nichols, and Robbin Broad for their dynamic design pastiche.
4•1•1 Zorro in Hell finishes its Berkeley run on April 18, but opens again in September at the La Jolla Playhouse.