Long before Los Angelinos began fighting monumental traffic and battling smog, Zorro was in town slicing up the colonial Mexican authorities — fictionally, anyway. Now, 95 years after his debut in “The Curse of Capistrano,” he’s gallantly fighting again in a performance space in Cape May.
East Lynne Theater, the professional stage company devoted to reviving old and often forgotten American plays and reworking venerable themes, is presenting “Zorro!,” a new adaptation of “The Curse of Capistrano” by James Rana. He’s adapted work for the company in the past and in “Zorro!” he also plays the nasty, unforgiving villain, Captain Ramon.
Zorro is la cucaracha of American-made heroes in his staying power – he’s enormously popular for a time, then goes away and when you’ve forgotten about him, he returns sword-in-hand to make his trademark sign of the “Z.” (After a scene with an initial cut of the letter into the air, nothing’s made of that sign in this play.) Some of us are old enough to remember the Disney TV show based on his escapades when we were young – it’s the way I figured out that California was not always the alluring All-American state it is today.
It took only a year after Johnston McCulley’s original story’s appearance for Zorro to burst on to silent-movie screens, played by Douglas Fairbanks. At least two more times, Zorro was remade as a film, and in 1924, the magazine pieces that composed the original version of “The Curse of Capistrano” were put together in book form, as “The Mark of Zorro.” Spurred by its popularity, McCulley wrote more than 50 Zorro stories before he died in 1958.
Clearly, Zorro has a provenance fit for East Lynne Theater Company – an old story of a pathetically dull and lazy man (originally, also effeminate) who only pretends to be that way so that no one will suspect him of being the master swordsman who robs money from cruel Mexican authorities who’ve overtaxed and mistreated natives and settlers. What you get at East Lynne is the level of production that’s become its trademark: polished professional acting performed at the altar of a downtown Cape May church with minimal scenery, pleasant costume design (by Marion T. Brady), and what feels like a heavily restricted playing space.
By now, the company, founded in 1980, has learned to make the most of that space. Gayle Stahlhuth, East Lynne’s artistic chief, directs the show to focus on the storytelling – as usual here — and Rana’s swift script gives her plenty to consider in the world-premiere production. The show’s musical background is unattributed in the program – it sounds like the music from the TV show – and adds much to the feel of the production, and fight director Joseph Travers choreographs some rousing tussles in that confined space. The cast carries them out with panache.
East Lynne’s Zorro is Jed Peterson, a tall and blond-streaked dashing masked man who fights to win the heart of the young settler Lolita (the sweetly portrayed Elisa Pupko) while he attempts to sway a posse hunting for him to join his revolt again corrupt authorities. (They do, in a strikingly weak part of the script when they change their allegiances in unison and without so much as a consultation.)
Everyone gamely plays multiple roles, and it’s easy to tell the characters apart. The major characters are Suzanne Dawson’s put-upon mother of Lolita (and the show’s comic relief) and Mark Lazar, from People’s Light & Theatre Company, as Lolita’s father and as a much mistreated friar (and others, although no names of characters appear for his performance in the program notes). Mark Edward Lang is Zorro’s dad and a young actor named Evan Smilyk nicely plays the child who will become Zorro plus a host of roles.
“Zorro!” is produced by East Lynne Theater Company, and runs through August 30 at the First Presbyterian Church of Cape May, 500 Hughes St., a few blocks from the pedestrian mall. 609-884-5898 or www.eastlynnetheater.org.