KPBS AIRDATE: October 13, 2006
Here’s a little election-season treat: a dollop of politics, a dash of religion, wrapped in satirical comedy. A couple of light bonbons with a dark layer underneath. The La Jolla Playhouse is serving up “Culture Clash’s Zorro in Hell” and the San Diego Repertory Theatre is ladling out “Miss Witherspoon.”
The title character in Christopher Durang’s latest creation is a middle-aged depressive curmudgeon. Miss Witherspoon isn’t even her real name. But when she commits suicide and ends up in the Bardo, an afterlife limbo, that’s the persnickety English-mystery moniker she’s given. The woman even finds fault in her heavenly abode, and stubbornly persists in resisting reincarnation, which is trying even to the beatific, sari-clad Buddhist who attends her. Miss Witherspoon, with her “murky, brown-tweed” aura, is forced to go back – as a baby, an abused teen, even a dog — until she and her soul learn the lessons they must before moving on. While she gets instruction, we get laughs, and a few insights, to boot. The comic one-act, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was named, by Newsday and Time, one of the Ten Best Plays of 2005. It has its silly moments, and in the Rep production, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, it’s a lot more screamy than one would like. But the cast is terrific, very versatile and relentlessly amusing. Costumes and characters change in a flash as Miss W is catapulted back to another life, ushered out by a wildly raucous soundscape.
Time is a slippery thing in “Zorro in Hell” as well. In this world premiere co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, those zany Chicanos, Culture Clash, are deconstructing the history of California and its most famous Latino legend. They don’t leave a cultural or local reference unmentioned, from Costco to Chula Vista, Southwestern College to NPR. Plenty of potshots are aimed at the federal government and the Gubanador who, present and past, is viewed as the enemy. The scattershot plot concerns an unsuccessful L.A. writer who travels to a historic inn, where he meets a 200 year-old woman, the country’s first Chicano and, through drug-induced hallucinations, the Indian outlaw, Trader Joe, and a psychotherapist grizzly bear named Kyle. Ultimately, the writer thinks he is the mythic masked crusader, which results in his being incarcerated and interrogated, Gitmo-style. The whole point of this funny/crazy/goofy exercise in agit-prop is “to release your inner Zorro,” to do what political theater has always done: rouse the masses to action. The Clash-men are in fighting form, and they’re excellently abetted by two seasoned actors. If you’re sexually or politically squeamish, perhaps you should stick to “The Wiz.” But if you can take it, there’s a message in both these deliciously irreverent plays — about tolerance, social justice and taking control.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.