Zorro ****

I might have a lot of people at a disadvantage on this one.  Being from Southern California, I’ve known the character of Zorro most of my life.  After all, the hero from Disney’s great 1950s television programme was the first thing I’d ever seen projected onto a movie screen (technically, my first film was Disney’s The Jungle Book, but the showing began with a Zorro episode).

So I went to the Traverse Theatre full of childish expectation.  Thankfully, that expectation was met.  Mostly.

It’s quite possible that most people’s experience of the Zorro character is through actor Antonio Banderas, but the character has been around since just after the First World War.  He started life in a book but was soon brought to life by Hollywood.  Most versions have conflicting facts, so in truth there is no real canonical version, a fact that actually proves helpful to playwright Davey Anderson, who has taken the spirit of the tale rather than the facts and has put together a pretty convincing background and story.

Here, Zorro isn’t the alter ego of a respected Don but that of a wronged orphan who watched his beloved father murdered by military thugs.  His hunt for justice leads him to become a champion of the people, especially as he starts taking on a corrupt military that are keen to usurp power from his guardian, the Governor of California (of colonial Spain).

Director Douglas Irvine has created a mostly solid production that is inventive and a lot of fun.  Three actors play most of the parts.  Actors Richard Conlon and Claire Dargo are quite good, but Sandy Grierson makes a rather excellent Zorro: dashing, resourceful and passionate.  The staging is quite simple and uses a racked platform rather well, and the action is quite brisk.

What becomes problematic is the use of puppets.  The idea of using puppetry is actually a good one; it allows for multiple characters and set pieces and also gives a cinematic feel to some of Zorro’s exploits.  However, most of the puppets have a comedic effect, and the result is a production that teeters between swashbuckler and comedy.  It’s a shame that much of the drama gets cheapened by such choices as the story is actually quite a mature and complicated one.

Still, I think there are far more strengths than weaknesses to this production, and Visible Fictions have once again proven that they are more than capable of creating theatre that isn’t just accessible but also interesting to multiple age groups.  I’d like to see this production have a life past this run as I think there is ample material in the play that would make it a great piece for schools.  It’s educational and has many important messages without being condescending or preachy.

Some seem to be complaining that Zorro isn’t a Christmas story so isn’t necessarily a good pick for a production at this time of year.  To that, I say Bah Humbug!  Most films that people look forward to during this festive season aren’t Christmas films but are fantasies and adventures.  And what’s more fantastic and adventurous than someone fighting for the oppressed, taking on the corrupt and crusading for justice.  In fact, now that I think of it, doesn’t Zorro have far more in line with Christmas ideals than most other fare?

Zorro plays at the Traverse until December 24.

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