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'ZORRO IN HELL' ARMS ITSELF WITH HOT, WILD HUMOR THAT IS HEAVEN-SENT.

Byline: EVAN HENERSON

>THEATER CRITIC

A spineless, disbelieving playwright -- possessed of cultural cynicism and all the drive of an amoeba -- winds up in a surrealistic inn somewhere out on Route 66 where a 200-year-old woman, a grizzly bear shrink and any number of hallucinogenic aids convince him of the need to embrace his inner conquistador.

Man, it's good to have Culture Clash back at what they do best: jiving, riffing and otherwise skewering myth and its connection to the present.

"Water & Power," the Clash's more serious-minded look at L.A. politics last year at the Mark Taper Forum, lacked the playful sauciness of the troupe's best efforts. "Zorro in Hell," directed by Tony Taccone and remounted at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, splendidly captures the troupe's anarchic spirit, letting it gleefully out to play. If we have to stomach a bit of didacticism and a steady stream of digs at our mayor, president, governor and prominent Latino politicians, well, that's an easy check to sign.

Speaking of checks, "Zorro in Hell" is being produced for the first time -- after runs in Berkeley and La Jolla -- by Culture Clash without the security blanket of a subscription audience. Here's very much hoping that patrons of the Montalban and lovers of quality theater alike will find their way to Hollywood and Vine. This is a show that richly deserves strong houses.

We first meet up with the playwright (played by Richard Montoya) straitjacketed and strapped to a chair somewhere in the bowels of Sacramento, being grilled by Homeland Security goons. Our man insists he's the legendary Zorro and has been spray-

painting the signature Z on the Capitol dome.

A flashback to six months ago contextualizes the man's lunacy. Assigned to ferret out some sort of Zorro story, the playwright wanders out into the desert and lands at the El Camino Inn, whose ancient proprietress (Sharon Lockwood) has ghostwritten the bulk of major literature. She's here to help our guy discover his mojo by any means necessary.

She has help. Bandits, the movie "Sleepy Mexicans," legendary writers and a talking grizzly bear (!) are perpetually dragging the playwright into and out of the cinematized tale that our hero is creating. The man who began this adventure insisting that Zorro is a myth, a degrading cultural stereotype, ultimately has a date with the mask. And, who knows, maybe one with the Gubernator, too.

Taccone and the Clash (the trio of Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas) serve all of this up with considerable brio. We're shuttling between the inn (handsomely designed by Christopher Acebo), the black-and-white movie world of Zorro and the richly comic landscape of the playwright's frequent hallucinations (with an occasional detour through the matrix).

Fun stuff, this, and you'd better believe that the Clash, Lockwood and actors Ezequiel Guerra Jr. and Joseph Kamal are enjoying the stuffing out of it. Many of the topical one-liners have clearly been updated since the play's 2006 debut (look out, Villaraigosa and Delgadillo!).

If Montoya's character is the play's engine, Siguenza (as the world's oldest Chicano, Don Rigo) and Salinas (in the bear costume) lend able support. It can't always be easy to keep pace with a trio of comics who have been a team for 23 years, but Lockwood -- all feistiness and prairie wisdom as the 200- year-old woman -- more than holds her own.

"Zorro in Hell" hiccups a bit when the Clash's "fight the fight" messaging gets preachy. More often than not, however, the boys are dishing out large portions of anything-goes mayhem. Heck, they'll scale the lighting tower and get their capes stuck in the grate if it means earning a laugh.

A stand's a stand, after all. A certain mask-wearing, sword-

wielding man in black would doubtless approve.

evan henerson, (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson(at)dailynews.com

ZORRO IN HELL

>Where: Ricardo Montalban Theatre, 1615 Vine St., Hollywood.

>When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through Aug. 19.

>Tickets: $25 to $55. (877) 359-6776. www.cultureclash.com.

>In a nutshell: The masked pop-culture icon gets a Clash-y pasting.

>Our rating: Three and one half stars

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Richard Montoya stars as a playwright seeking information on a famed masked hero who finds himself donning a costume and spray-painting a giant Z on California's Capitol dome in Culture Clash's "Zorro in Hell."
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Title Annotation:LA.COM
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 20, 2007
Words:735
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