Buckle your swashes, my friends! Ride back with me across the mesas of time to Alta (Upper) California between the 1820s and ’40s, under Mexican rule. There you will hear of a masked hero who signs his insignia with his blade—a slashing “Z” for Zorro, the fox. Though disguised as a highwayman, Zorro is a caballero—a gentleman—who does the work of the angels incognito, protecting the poor and defenseless against the harsh punishments and taxations of the colonial governor and his troops.
In Constellation Theatre Company’s witty world premiere staging of Zorro, the old hero gets his origin story burnished. Co-writers Janet Allard and Eleanor Holdridge have folded a dash of feminist thinking into the romance and derring-do, and it doesn’t feel at all forced. At its best, this Zorro displays not only panache, but also a gentle cheekiness that never belittles the tale being told. Yes, the writers acknowledge, this may be corny stuff, born as it was in a pulp fiction tale by Johnston McCulley published in 1919, and made legend in multiple films and a late ’50s TV show dear to the memories of baby boomers. Yet the idea of Zorro remains cool. Allard and Holdridge respect that.
They also know that a sweeping saga such as this one must slim down to less than epic proportions to fit into the intimate space at Source. When the wily hero faces his foe in life and love, Capitan Ramon (Andrés Talero), blade-to-blade on the dark cobblestones of designer A.J. Guban’s plaza, the soundtrack (by Behzad Habibzai) unleashes a flurry of hands clapping in flamenco rhythm. The moment becomes instantly cinematic, funny, and perfect—and the actual swordplay (choreographed by Casey Kaleba), by the way, looks very accomplished.
As the dandyish, hanky-dabbing Don Diego de la Vega and his fearless alter ego, Danny Gavigan cuts a fine figure. He makes the transitions from fop to hero and back with nuance and humor, exiting the scene on some lame excuse, then reappearing half a minute later, comically breathless and sweaty from the change of costume and persona.
Early on, when Don Diego returns home from university to his father Don Alejandro’s (Jim Jorgensen) California hacienda, Gavigan makes palpable the young man’s disillusion after seeing his old friend, the monk Fray Felipe (Michael Kramer), publicly whipped on a trumped-up charge by order of Capitan Ramon. The transition from callow college boy to the “activist” Don Diego, who must live a secret life (Batman really owes Zorro) in order to function gets short shrift in this intermissionless hour-and-45-minute piece, but Gavigan makes it work.
Actually, with few (and never egregious) exceptions, the entire cast perform with melodramatic flair, laced with just enough silliness where needed. Talero makes Capitan Ramon a satisfyingly complex and conflicted villain. As pure comic relief, Carlos Saldaña, with his padded belly, lights up the stage as Sergeant Gonzales, a soldier who follows orders but would rather be Zorro’s pal. Vanessa Bradchulis earns many laughs as a lusty barmaid and as Doña Pulido, mother of Lolita (Stephanie LaVardera, in still-evolving performance that needs more fire), the spirited debutante whom Don Diego/Zorro secretly loves.
This can be turgid stuff, for sure, but director Holdridge knows a thing or two about leavening melodrama with drollery and weaving together conflicting tones. She does it deftly here. It was Holdridge who adapted and staged The Gaming Table at Folger Theatre, about 18th-century Brits who gamble compulsively. She also directed Round House’s Double Indemnity, about murder and adultery, and Theater J’s Body Awareness, about political correctness in all its sincerity and silliness.
Not every moment in this newly minted Zorro flies—the humor may briefly lag, the melodrama grow heavy, or the timing skip a beat. Yet overall, this mini epic offers big fun on a little stage.
Zorro, a production by Constellation Theatre Company, is at the Source through February 17. Running time is one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($25 to $45) are available via Constellation Theatre’s website.