I had never heard of Culture Clash, a group started in 1984 in San Francsico. I suppose I'm surprised I hadn't before since I studied performance and performance art for a few years in New York, and love what you might call "downtown-y" performance there. Maybe it's the SF thing, though they've performed everywhere. They even had a TV show. So, color me clueless. This was the first Chicano performed Latino produced full theatrical production in Los Angeles history (according to the mayoral proclamation in the lobby), and the group has a venerable history of performance and instruction in political theatre.
So--onto the show. The blurb on the website says:
The Missionaries of Mayhem arrive at the historic Ricardo Montalban Theatre for the Los Angeles premiere of ZORRO IN HELL! Set in simpler times when our Gringo Amigos terrorized whom ever they pleased as they struggled with Mexican Immigration, Hispanic Girlie Mans, Indian Casinos and a foreign born governor with a thick Austrian accent! Culture Clash rips Zorro from the pages of pulp fiction to take on Hollywood's image machine while blasting though borders and stereotypes. Culture Clash remakes the Masked Hero so that he may truly represent the oppressed peoples everywhere including The West Side! Rise up Californians! Rise up for justice! Rise up for Zorro in Hell!
So--you know, no big topics here. Ha. Like always, this will be a non-proofread extravaganza, so hopefully I'll make some sense and you'll be able to follow.
The show is set in a flahsback. We meet a man who is masked in a straightjacket who calls himself Zorro is being questioned by FBI (CIA? Secret Service? They wear shorthand black trenchcoats and sunglasses) about who he really is. After being given some kind of truth serum, we all flashback to his arrival in a small town in California at a small inn. He is a (failed/failing) sitcom writer, and the inn he has stumbled upon is run by a 200 year old woman who has tutored/slept with many famous writers from Tolstoy to Murieta to Karl Marx and her sidekick the first Chicano in history. She tries to get him to recognize the true Zorro that he is. That's the big bruch version. In the midst of this are a couple of Zorro tales, a jewish grizzly bear therapist, the Austrian Gobernador, two gay cowboys, and a Gold Icon. You may get the idea. Amongst the plot are sprinkled musings on politics (current and past), history, and race.
Frankly, I don't know where to begin. The cast is great--talented, funny, obviously working hard. The jokes are funny--one of my favorite sequences involved a silent movie gag in which a mute Mexican villager tries to tell the lady heroine about Zorro. He pulls out the bells, whistles, finally charades, and when he makes Zorro's motion of the Z she says "They've chopped the prices at the mercado!" That scored a guffaw. And many more did, though I felt overall the humor only added to the scattered nature of the production.
In the final moment, when Zorro (Richard Montoya?--I'll have to check my program when I get back home) has had the audience stand up for California, he climbs up a ladder to the balcony extension and says "Let's hear it for clever agitprop theater". I think that may be the best explanation, though I think that's even a little too facile. Agitprop believes in it's ideas, whereas the cleverness of this troupe for me undercuts some of what they are trying to get across. Also, agitprop is pretty straightforward, whereas the hurricane of ideas and references in this show are almost exhausting to follow.
There is a discussion of the Zorro character and the purpose he serves, the Scotsman who wrote him, the character's roots in old California, whether he had been appropriated or not that began in the show but was never resolved, although I believe the idea of the show is the main writer's gradual acceptance of Zorro as a symbol of strength. The earlier idea of how he was created, by whom, and why are gradually recede to the foreground in favor of treatment of the Yaqui Indians in the filming of the original movies and the portrayal of "the sleeping Mexican" in all the films. Into this are references to everything from Ramona to West Side story, and digs at Schwarzenegger, Villaraigosa and the Riverside County police, as well as lines about everything from healthcare to immigration. I'm exhausted just thinking about it again. I kept thinking there are so many references in the show that the writer's may be too clever for their own (or the play's good). At the end, there were so many ideas thrown about, but I had no idea of the political purpose of the play except to agitate. Doesn't agitprop at least have a purpose? Are we supposed to leave the play upset about eminent domain, the environment, gay marriage, immigration, progress, empire building, latino stereotypes, the governor, Guantanamo, literary theft, bad writing, grizzly bear habitats, the loss of free speech and the right to a fair trial?
Or are we supposed to leave thinking that the cast was very clever? They're a smart, talented, fun to watch group. The references are fast and furious. If there is a chance to get a laugh, they'll take it. In most ways, I think they succeed more as a comedy troupe than political theater (at least in this piece). It's chock full of references, obscure to general. And if there is any opportunity for a joke, it's taken, no matter how ridiculous. The action even completely stops for a Matrix joke. Perhaps it's the influence of Family Guy--non-sequitirs that congratulate the audience for it's own cleverness and are shorthand to a laugh.
Don't get me wrong--I laughed and I think it's funny. It's just that if you are bringing up all these ideas, I would expect something to be done with them, or at least explored in some ways, as opposed to being set ups for a joke. Everytime there was a moment of emotional connection it would be undercut with a joke. So the play felt like little political diatribes and a bunch of silliness. I certainly enjoyed it--I'd rather have politics brought up in any way, even if not thoughtfully. I learned no more about the creation/co-opting of Zorro than I knew going in, and if I didn't know about Ramona through
Perhaps it's the size of the theatre--having this 5 actor piece on a stage with a turntable and projections may have overwhelmed this silly "let's put on a play" feeling that smaller spaces can have. Certainly it lost some of the intimacy that I imagine could really envelop you in a smaller house. Maybe that's why this comes off in some ways as an exercise in clever.
Like I said--it's funny and I'm glad I saw it. I would go see this work again before some of the other things that pass as theatre. And I would always support and love any group of people trying to entertain and say something at the same time. Perhaps it's indicative of where we are as a culture--there is so much information, so much to be upset about, that sometimes we can only look at it all and be overwhelmed, or make jokes--I know how that's how my mind works. But it comes off as a little self-congratulatory--watching an artist struggle with himself and make jokes telegraphing how quick he is.
The last moment, when Zorro is left alone in a straightjacket by the FBI who have basically told him he can be held without charges or have any right to an appeal, there is a moment of true frustration, where we can see where we could be headed (or some would argue, are). It's a moment that had a glimmer of dramatic intensity. There could have been a something harrowing that happened to leave us after a night of hilarity in a place that dark, especially considering the whimsy with which most of the ideas were brought up throughout the evening. Instead, our hero is saved by a Salvadoran immigrant janitor (whom he thinks is Mexican). Well, it's a comedy, and we always want Zorro to win.