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Culture Clash’s Zorro in Hell!

"Zorro in Hell!" entertainingly releases the Zorro legend from its pulpy, campy moorings, though the approach of the trio (Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza, Ric Salinas) sabotages a subsequent attempt to instill within its audience the avenging spirit of the masked swordsman.

Clasher - Richard Montoya Kyle the Bear - Ric Salinas Don Ringo - Herbert Siguenza La Dona - Sharon Lockwood Diego/Zorro - Joseph Kamal

Bay Area comedy trio Culture Clash’s riotous brand of reverse alchemy separates 200 years of California cultural history into its component parts, with no icon, cliche, pun, contempo politician or act of gringo imperialism omitted. “Zorro in Hell!” entertainingly releases the Zorro legend from its pulpy, campy moorings, though the approach of the trio (Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza, Ric Salinas) sabotages a subsequent attempt to instill within its audience the avenging spirit of the masked swordsman.

An unfettered joie de vivre accounts for the endless appeal of Zorro (Joseph Kamal), who takes the same delight in sashaying around in the guise of his foppish alter ego as in buckling his swashes to resist authority and redistribute California’s wealth. (Kamal brilliantly embodies Douglas Fairbanks’ special exuberance in the first of a series of acted-out movies.)

Zorro shows it can be fun to be good — a particularly refreshing reminder after recent films have depicted dual-identity heroes like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man having more trouble battling their neuroses than their nemeses.

But that’s all lost on morose failed playwright Clasher (Montoya in his characteristic mode of unvaried, hoarse shouting), arriving at the El Camino Real Inn deep in the desert to research a debunking of the eponymous hero. Spouting an easy, cynical left-wing line but ready to drop any debate for an episode of “Dog Whisperer,” he dismisses Zorro as hack writer Johnston McCully’s cornpone ripoff of the Scarlet Pimpernel, an ethnic joke, an insult.

Nevertheless, the 200-year-old proprietor La Dona (Sharon Lockwood), free-loving repositor of California’s cultural heritage, decides Clasher is the means by which Zorro can once again ride out of the night when the full moon is bright, this time to push back the despoilers whose motto is “Have gun and greed, will travel.”

There’s no good reason why the miserable Clasher should be deemed the “Chosen One” on this mission, except perhaps on the theory that if this skeptic can be radicalized, anyone can. Yet all the inn’s resources are marshaled, including a laudanum-induced drug trip cleverly inspired by “Apocalypse Now,” a survey of insidious ethnic cliches (including the ubiquitous “sleepy Mexican”) and La Dona’s evocation of her most memorable lover, the Zorro-like real-life bandit Joaquin Murietta.

Though Lockwood is elsewhere all non-stop Granny Clampett-crusty, the years melt as she morphs into the earliest spirit of California, all innocence and youth.

Siguenza’s doddering, preening Don Ringo offers wisdom and common sense along with reliable laughs, but the most persuasive case for Zorro as “the first radical Chicano” is made by therapist Kyle (a droll and cuddly Salinas), who when not seeing patients is the bear on the California state flag.

“Zorro in Hell!” is overlong and not as consistently funny as it wants to be, largely because of the troupe’s habit of site-specific name-dropping as a substitute for wit, as if merely mentioning I-5 freeway traffic or the “Telemundo bee-yotch” sans punchline were itself hilarious. Still, plenty of stylish comic acting and helmer Tony Taccone’s handsome production employing a turntable and video clips projected across a full-stage screen keep us involved in Clasher’s quest.

In the end, persuaded that society needs Zorro, Clasher dons cape and mask and becomes him. At this point this “Zorro” mounts its high horse, revealing the biggest limitation of Culture Clash’s glibness.

The reborn masked man exhorts us while climbing the theater walls, undoing show’s effective indictment of stereotypes by contemptuously shooing all who might disagree back to Simi Valley. Meanwhile, the cast assumes aud solidarity as it recites a litany of wants and grievances — for all intents and purposes, the campaign platform of presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich — but even the laughing, clapping faithful are unlikely to be moved to action. Since show hasn’t courted aud’s hearts, just its minds, its feet won’t follow.

Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty” inspired first-nighters to shouts of “Strike! Strike!” by putting the anguish of oppressed labor onto the stage where it could be seen and felt. In its own “Water & Power” last year at the Taper, Culture Clash didn’t just talk about the effect of corrupt misgovernment on the average Joe; they dramatized it and made it sting in order to open our eyes.

This new production’s attempt to whip acolytes into a frenzy through sheer name-calling and a laundry list of progressive gripes is like starting the Wave at a baseball game: It’s likely to garner plenty of whoops but no lasting engagement.

Since the troupe wants nothing less for us than to relive the Zorro fantasies we acted out when we were 6 or 7, maybe during his final call to arms Montoya should hand out a basketful of cloths with eyeholes cut out. A herd of masked avengers pouring out of the Ricardo Montalban Theater would create much more buzz than the current polite departure of lightly amused sophisticates. If the masses are to rise up, then dammit, let them be impelled to rise up.

Culture Clash's Zorro in Hell!

Ricardo Montalban Theater; 515 seats; $55 top

Production: A Zorro's Legion in association with the Ricardo Montalban Foundation presentation of a Zorro Prods., Ruben and Sandra Islas, Islas Prods., Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza production of a play in two acts by Culture Clash (Montoya, Siguenza, Ric Salinas). Directed by Tony Taccone.

Crew: Sets, Christopher Acebo; costumes, Christal Weatherly; lighting, Alexander V. Nichols; music, Vincent Christopher Montoya; sound design, Robbin E. Broad; fight director, Dave Maier; stage manager, Joe Witt. Opened, reviewed July 18, 2007. Runs through Aug. 19. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Clasher - Richard Montoya Kyle the Bear - Ric Salinas Don Ringo - Herbert Siguenza La Dona - Sharon Lockwood Diego/Zorro - Joseph KamalWith: Ezequiel Guerra Jr.

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