The fourth collaboration between Berkeley Rep and Culture Clash is another small step forward in terms of adapting group’s sketch-comedy sensibility to evening-length work. In terms of sheer laughs, however, “Zorro in Hell” takes steps as large as they are customarily haphazard. This spoof/meditation on the enduring masked Spanish-American hero’s mythos may not have much of a coherent point, but the comic chaos frequently is inspired enough to render that unimportant. A truckload of local and state in-jokes might need to be tweaked if/when the show travels outside California’s borders.
The 23-year-old Culture Clash trio of Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza are here abetted by treasured local comedian Sharon Lockwood, free-ranging stage thesp Joseph Kamal and occasionally onstage musician Vincent Christopher Montoya. That’s still barely enough personnel to cover all the quick-change characters and reality-levels on tap in CC’s crammed script.
A Latino wannabe-sitcom writer whose ethnic identity hovers between total assimilation and invisibility (asked, “Habla espanol?” he obliviously replies, “Ten o’clock”), Clasher (Richard Montoya) has traveled from L.A. to El Camino Real Inn to research his latest assignment, a journalistic puff piece on the legacy of Zorro.
He’s greeted by La Dona (Lockwood), a purportedly 200-year-old hostess whose mostness has extended to housing, “inspiring” and shagging every famous American writer during that period. Also at hand is bald-pated Don Ringo (Siguenza), a proud fogey given to suddenly shouting heavenward, “I was the first Chicano!”
Despite all the literary greats who’ve slept here, however, the eccentric duo consider themselves primarily “the true keepers of the Zorro myth and legend.” They’re thus excited by slackerish urbanite Clasher’s mission, but dismayed by his attitude, which dismisses Z-man as a retro stereotype written by a “gringo hack.” (Indeed, pulp scribe Johnston McCulley first created him for a 1919 magazine serial; silent star Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s two hit Zorro movies were what launched the character into pop-culture immortality.)
Don and Dona — who may themselves be more specters than proprietors — launch a campaign of harassment designed to awaken Clasher’s inner Zorro. This includes sudden, hilarious live enactments of imaginary Zorro film sequences, nocturnal visits from bisexual desperadoes and a Zora Neale Hurston-quoting therapist named Kyle (Salinas). There’s also a psychedelic, pocket-sized spin through “Apocalypse Now” and a whole lot of passing riffs on everything from breakdancing to gun-crazy Dick Cheney.
The message, such as it is, is that as a non-white “defender of justice, champion of the oppressed,” Zorro will always be a good role model to kids and anyone else.
The last-minute attempt to turn this into a rallying cry for general-purpose agitation against The Man (complete with blunt “Fuck Bush” shout) feels more than a little strained after so much loosey-goosey silliness. Of course, in Berkeley, Culture Clash is preaching to the converted — probably the least offendable audience of 60-something subscribers in existence.
If there’s ultimately not a lot of bite to the satire here, there’s surely a great deal of glee to it, and director Tony Taccone’s pace assures no dud joke hits the floor before we’re off on another anarchic tangent.
The performers are delightful — newcomer Kamal particularly felicitous as a gay Zorro late in act one — and all design aspects share their spirit of cartoony invention.