In front of an enormous projection of the Bear Flag, alternately in full color and eerie x-ray blue, morphing into the view through the windshield of a fast superhighway, there’s a masked man seated onstage at “The Berkeley Rep of Alta California”—but he bears no resemblance to the masked man of the title, a kind of processed Latino Lone Ranger. This one’s not caped in black with black silk mask and mounted on a saddle. This figure’s in restraints, effaced (while a bitchy burlesque nurse tries to force m eds on him, then goes for the suppositories) mumbling “I’m the Wal-Mart price slasher! ... one man can start a revolution or recall a standing governor ...” And when a couple of Homeland Security-type spooks put him through whatever degree, demanding “Why did you threaten the governor? Who are you really?”, the man in a bind replies, “I’m bi-cultural, bi-curious and bipolar ... My California is now an endless series of strip malls ... I am Zorro! I must be Zorro! A muhajadeen Zorro! I have my own guitar flourish! There was a time when I was a normal Chicano ...”
So, starting out from the aftermath in a kind of upside-down One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we enter backwards into an odyssey of high stakes and cultural kitsch, of identities shifting faster than Christopher Acebo’s ultra-mobile sets and Alexander V. Nichols’ dynamic lights and cinema-surround effects, as a Latino writer engaged to write a play about Zorro checks into the El Camino Real, the oldest motel in the world, encountering a phantasm agoria of Old California icons. Routines play out and one-liners fly in Culture Clash’s Zorro in Hell.
It’s post-agit-prop spectacle, as deliberately 2-D as a comic strip, and very amusing in its ricocheting quips that cover the statewide scene and wha t’s thought and said about it, pilloried with the same poses struck by commentators and spectators alike. Richard Montoya of Culture Clash, playing the halfhearted scribbler (“Just because you got no talent don’t mean you can’t write”) is coached and prov oked by the Calamity Jane-like 200 Year Old Woman (a juicily comic Sharon Lockwood) who’s seen (and done) them all, as well as Don Ringo (canny Herbert Siguenza of the Clash), constantly striking a skewed pose and reiterating his battlecry: “I am the firs t Chicano!” There’s also a grisly Bear-a-pist (Clasher Ric Salinas), a kind of Jungian-of-Nature, who advises the bewildered playwright (who has said, “God is dead—I know, because I Googled God!”) that even the Zorro romance, from a cheap 1920s novel, has its place in the scheme of things. “When do myths become real? When people believe in them,” he says. Coming from a bear—the one they named the Bear Republic after?—it’s hard to quibble with.
Vignettes fly by as the set shifts in and out of clever li ve-action parodies of the big-Z films, bathed in cinematic flicker. One, a silent with swordplay and supertitled intertitles, is somehow reminiscent of Will Rogers’ camera-tricky spoof of yet another Fairbanks Senior swashbuckler, Robin Hood. Another, a talkie, plays off George Hamilton’s Zorro—The Gay Blade, with effeminate Don Diego (Joseph Kamal) and a masher as his beloved old friar. In a post-intermission face-off between a youthful Davey Crockett and a puerile Zorro, a handgun accident delivers the baby Zorro into the arms of a bright white Guy Williams, the Disney Mr. Z, on whose pinions the slain youth will rise to heaven, not California (”that’s hell!”). In another sketch-within-the-program, Joaquin Murrieta is discovered within a private shrine—and later, his severed head mugs in a jar of whiskey, whence it was displayed at fairs.
The evening is less a play than a program of skits, though it all adds up in its blitzkrieg of images (Siguenza as an Erich Von Stroheim Prussian gubernator, or alte rnately in a Schwarzenegger mask running a mini-Hummer up against Zorro’s defensive rapier) and self-conscious quips (”Now I understand; I’m caught in an SF Mime Troupe play!”)—into a princely sum of its parts, but not much more. It would be interesting t o see how the Mime Troupe, or say the Dell’Arte Players would do with the elaborate and expensive tech set-up and fine artistic support Culture Clash has from The Rep. This production is what it was intended to be: a brisk (and briskly directed by The Re p’s artistic director, Tony Taccone) and gleefully rude political entertainment, not The Marx Bros. but vaudeville with a barcode, so the check-out is faster.
The litany (or catechism) of California dreams and atrocities rolls along with the outrageous q uips (“I’m dreaming of a White Kwanza” or “My god! I have nothing to wear to the quail hunt!”). But the disheartened Zorro who found himself in the wrong movie discovers his inner action hero in the end, as the Bear Flag goes into hibernation, and the las t villains fade away, one strangely muttering a critic’s begrudging regret: “I hate to waste a single bullet on a playwright!”
Culture Clash’s Zorro in Hell
plays through April 16 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater. $45-$59.647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org›e