Plays that lay topical or contemporary references on thick tend to turn me off. For one thing, stuffing scripts with allusions to Starbucks, weapons of mass destruction, and text messaging might generate a few knowing nods or half-hearted titters, but the technique fails to connect with audiences in anything but the most superficial of ways. For another, productions too much entrenched in the daily news or the humdrum trappings of modern existence risk becoming dated. I mean, who's going to care about Cheney in 50 years' time? A work whose lifespan extends well beyond the lifespan of its author is one capable of uncovering the truths of its era, whether it uses a ducking stool or an electronic lie detector to do it. Shakespeare deserves Ben Jonson's famous compliment "He was not of an age but for all time" partly for this reason.
Given the above sentiments, you'd think a show that packs more references to 21st-century American life into two hours than any I've ever seen would cause me to scribble Elizabethan insults all over my playbill before flouncing out of the theater in a huff. However, when the dreaded DCHJ (Dick Cheney Hunting Joke) cropped up in the middle of Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell, I didn't mind a bit. Even the Arnold Schwarzenegger citations didn't bother me.
Besides topical material that ranges from California's Governator ("El Gobernador") to the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the audacious Chicano theater troupe's peek behind the mask of this state's most famous man in black is packed with other nods to contemporary culture. Film references abound, from quips about Brokeback Mountain to an opening scene that brings The Silence of the Lambs, The Matrix, and Don Juan DeMarco to mind. The whole production is steeped in the madcap aesthetics of a Mel Brooks comedy. While Christopher Acebo's beautifully rendered adobe hacienda sets baked golden in Alexander V. Nichols' dusty-desert light suggest Blazing Saddles, the proprietor of the hokey El Camino Real Inn is dubbed the 200 Year Old Woman, in homage, I guess, to Brooks' 2000 Year Old Man.
The show further assaults our senses with current cultural dregs as diverse as the Nike swoosh (superimposed upon a giant projection of the California flag), a downloadable cellphone ringtone of Zorro's whinnying steed Toronado, and Tupac Shakur. By the end of this story which concerns a cynical Los Angeles-based writer's attempt to pen a book about Zorro we're left wondering how the word "fandango" ever meant an animated Spanish-American dance in triple time, when it's obviously the name of an online movie ticket service.
Zorro in Hell is powerful because it brings language and culture together in a new way. Bombarding the Zorro myth and the audience with a volley of contemporary kitsch isn't about generating cheap laughs, though smart comedy there is aplenty. The Three Musketeers who make up Culture Clash (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Sigüenza) are such versatile performers and saber-witted writers that they put these normally bland and sloppily used allusions to work. Instead of cracking weak jokes about pop stars and politicians, the ensemble, true to its name, forces particles of history, myth, and culture to clash against one another with profound results.
By staging lavishly choreographed pastiches of silent-era Zorro flicks in all their tight-costumed, melodramatic glory, while at the same time sending up those hackneyed films' stereotypes (the sleeping Mexican, the mute Indian servant), the company draws attention to long-ignored racial cliches inherent in the Zorro canon. Meanwhile, the collision between the old and the new, the factual and the supernatural, the highbrow and the low, points up how alienated we are from the spirit in which heroes like Zorro were conceived. The jamming of pop culture against a mythical, literary, or historical past the strumming of a Spanish guitar, the name-dropping of bookish heavyweights such as Neruda, Whitman, and Wilde makes us see that such legendary daring deeds couldn't be further from our own reality. Self-sacrificing idealists like Zorro might fight to protect the underprivileged and oppressed, but the L.A. writer's idea of a battle is "fighting T-Mobile for roaming charges."
Zorro is hidden under so many layers of tacky contemporary couture that you can't see the man for the clothes. The ensemble members joined by additional performers Sharon Lockwood, Joseph Kamal, and Vincent Christopher Montoya careen about the stage like slapstick vaudeville comedians. They undergo so many dramatic character and costume changes that you lose track of who's playing what part and think there are at least twice as many people onstage as there are. This commotion adds to the feeling of confusion about who, exactly, is behind the mask.
This muddle is just the point. Culture Clash artfully mashes the Zorro myth to a pulp (I use the word "pulp" literally Zorro first came into being in 1919 in a work of pulp fiction by writer Johnston McCulley) until both the hero's and everyone else's identities are lost in the mass media stampede. Using topical references as satirical weapons, the show critiques our culture of marketing and endless reproduction, revealing Zorro to be little more than a brand. I wonder if Zorro Productions, Inc., the Berkeley-based company that owns the real-life rights to the brand and commissioned and produced Zorro in Hell along with Berkeley Rep and La Jolla Playhouse sees any irony in this?