Constellation Theatre Company ZorroBy Bob Ashby • Jan 29th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Constellation Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Source Theatre, Washington, DC
Through February 17th
1:50 without intermission
Reviewed January 27th, 2013
Pulp fiction and comic books are a well-mined source for movies; Constellation Theater’s current adaptation of the Zorro stories, by Janet Allard and director Eleanor Holdridge, shows that live theater can take an enjoyable whack at the genre as well. Whacks there are aplenty in this tale of swashbuckling swordsmanship and daring escapes. You can make a good argument that the real star of the show is fight choreographer Casey Kaleba, who devises some highly intricate sequences, notably a three-way combat with foils toward the end of the show.
As the program notes make clear, Allard and Holdridge imagine the tale as a coming-of-age story for Don Diego/Zorro (Danny Gavigan) and view it as a darker take on the story than the original pulp magazine, movie, and television versions. That may be, but this version isn’t all that dark. There remains a substantial comic element, in places like Diego’s over-the-top fop charade that he uses to throw Zorro’s pursuers off the scent, the exaggeration-prone Sergeant Gonzalez (Carlos Sandana), and the flighty Dona Catalina Pulido (Vanessa Bradchulis), whose main concern is to marry off her daughter Lolita (Stephanie LaVardera).
The main source of darkness in the play is Captain Ramon (Andres Talero), the foster son of the tyrannical governor (Oscar Ceville). Talero’s Ramon is a sort of sword-wielding rough draft of Richard Nixon: a poor California boy, full of status anxieties and resentments, prone to anger and lying, who lists his enemies and willingly goes outside the law to punish them. Talero’s characterization makes these facets of Ramon, as well as his genuine passion for Lolita, believable, enabling the audience to empathize with him. It’s not uncommon for a villain to be the most interesting character in a show, and Talero makes a strong case for Ramon in this regard.
Gavigan distinguishes clearly between his character’s fop and hero masks. When we first see Diego, he is a fairly straightforward young man returning from university in Spain, with good instincts he does not yet know how to express. His fop persona emerges only after, and in response to, his first foray as Zorro.
The structure of the play repeatedly sends Diego back and forth between his two incarnations, often with just enough time offstage to manage a costume change before reemerging as his alter ego. The pattern of Zorro crossing swords with bad guys, making a hairsbreadth escape, entering as Diego wondering what has happened, and then awaiting his next Zorro escapade, while somewhat repetitious, acts as an easily accessible metaphor for the struggles of a young man trying to figure out who he is. By play’s end, with Lolita’s aid, he is able to integrate the sides of his personality into a whole.
LaVardera’s Lolita is a puzzle, who never seems fully integrated. Is she the 17-year old crusader for justice, the romantic girl longing for a hero to set fire to her heart, the beauty able to inflame men’s passions at first sight, the attempted peacemaker between testosterone-charged males, or the suddenly adept swordswoman (Batgirl to Zorro’s Batman?) able to hold her own in mortal combat with experienced fencers? At one time or other, she is made to seem all those things, but what isn’t clear is how all these characteristics fit together into a single person, let alone the presumably sheltered teenage daughter of a 19th-century Californiano aristocrat.
There is much in the play of the fraught relationships between fathers and children: Diego with Don Alejandro (Jim Jorgensen); Ramon with the Governor; Lolita with Don Carlos Pulido (Carlos Juan Gonzalez). Jorgensen is particularly convincing as the proud, arrogant patriarch demanding, on pain of rejection, that Diego fit his picture of the proper son.
The technical side of the production is outstanding. A,J. Guban’s setting arranges seating areas on either side of the central playing area, which is flanked by a set piece suggesting a mission on one end and another suggesting a gracious hacienda on the other. The materials and design of the playing area, which extends up stairs into the audience, create a convincing sense of place. Kendra Rai’s costume design, from the colorful dresses and lace of the ladies, to Diego’s dashing Zorro outfit (complete with leather vest), to the more restrained suits of the aristocrats and the uniforms of the soldiers, solidly supports the story and characters. The only fault of the set and costumes is that they are too clean. It is hard to imagine 19th century southern California without a bit of dust being tracked in. Nancy Schertler’s lights are designed and aimed to provide a variety of slices of the playing area, enabling a smooth, cinematic flow between scenes.
Other reviewers have opined that the script is unsure of its direction (e.g., between its comic and dramatic aspects). While the script, to my ear, seems to strike a decent balance between these elements, its language creates an uneven tone. Often, the writers appear to be going for more formal speech suggesting the 19th century setting of the play, but that tone is frequently interrupted by very contemporary-sounding word usage. The way that Lolita, Diego and others express their concerns about the social and political situation sounds like it would be more at home on WPFW’s “Democracy Now” than in 1820s California. The characters speak mostly in Spanish-accented English, with occasional random bits of Spanish thrown in. The overall effect is disconcerting.
On balance, the production is a worthwhile, well-performed, attempt at providing deeper content to a well-known popular culture story. It may also be a lesson in the effect of the strength of source material on the success of a play. It’s one thing to draw theatrical inspiration from the deep well of Ovid or the Gilgamesh epic; relying on the shallower pond of pulp fiction is quite another.
Notes from Co-Playwright and Director
Beating through the story of Zorro is, I believe, the rough pulpy heartbeat of the American spirit. I love to think of Johnston McCulley–hardboiled copywriter, first generation Irishman, man of mystery himself–gazing at the crumbling facades of the missions and presidios of southern California and imagining a world of high romance and adventure, where good vanquishes evil, and wrongs are righted with three signature swipes of a sword. He writes of a simpler time, and of a hero who spurns his own wealth and privilege to help the poor and live up to the best in himself.
I can’t remember not knowing Zorro. My dad was born in 1910 and was ten years old when the Fairbanks movie came out. His phrases, stories and tall tales were filled with the purple poetic language of the pulps. I watched the movies and TV series over and over, trying to understand the more innocent childhood of my father’s youth. And, it was Diego’s relationship with his father that drew me in most, the need to prove himself and be worthy of his dad’s sense of honor even while he repudiated his father’s acceptance of a corrupt society. As I was trying to figure out who I’d be in the world so, it seemed, was Zorro.
And so, years later, Janet Allard and I envision this Zorro as a coming of age story for today. At the center are three young adults–Diego, Lolita and Capitan Ramon–who strive to discover what they believe, define themselves as individuals distinct from their fathers and take a stance. As McCulley drafted him, the hero sprang into view as an avenger already born. Today, in this version, we imagine the origins of the hero: exploring the forging of Zorro, the creation of an alter ego and the cost of both masks to the man within. It is a darker, more complex world than the one that McCulley imagined, darker than the one in which he lived. To make a stance is to make a choice and to make a choice is to create repercussions. And yet the wrongs of the world must be righted. The pulpy heartbeat still pounds. It is time for Zorro to ride again.
Photos by Andrew Propp
- Don Diego Vega/Zorro: Danny Gavigan
- Lolita: Stephanie LaVardera
- Don Carlos: Carlos Juan Gonzalez
- Dona Catalina: Vanessa Bradchulis
- The Governor: Oscar Ceville
- Captain Ramon: Andrés Talero
- Don Alejandro Vega: Jim Jorgensen
- Fray Felipe: Michael Kramer
- Sergeant Gonzales: Carlos Saldaña
Behind the Scenes
- Eleanor Holdridge: Director / Playwright
- Janet Allard: Playwright
- A.J. Guban: Scenic Designer
- Nancy Schertler: Lighting Designer
- Kendra Rai: Costume Designer
- Mariano Vales: Composer
- Behzad Habibzai: Sound Designer
- Kevin Laughon: Props Designer
- Casey Kaleba: Fight Choreographer
- Melissa Flaim: Dialect Coach
- Taylor Hitaffer: Dramaturg
- Cheryl Ann Gnerlich: Stage Manager
- Ken Wills: Assistant Lighting Designer
- Courtney Leigh Wood: Assistant Costume Designer & Assistant Stage Manager
- Daniel Mori: Assistant Stage Manager
- Jason Krznarich: Technical Director
- Jeny Hall: Master Electrician / Board Op.
- Daina Cramer: Scenic Artist
- Angelo Merenda: Production Assistant
- Allison Arkell Stockman: Founding Artistic Director
- A.J. Guban: Managing Director
- Cheryl Ann Gnerlich: Production Manager
- Lindsey Ruehl: Audience Services Manager
Disclaimer: Constellation Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9076.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.