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Constellation Theater Charges Into The Future With Zorro

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Danny Gavigan plays the title role in Zorro, Constellation Theatre Company’s world-premiere play.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Propp
Danny Gavigan plays the title role in Zorro, Constellation Theatre Company’s world-premiere play.

The swashbuckling, black-masked defender of the people known as "Zorro" first galloped into the world in 1919, as the brainchild of pulp writer Johnston McCulley. Since then, he has appeared all over the place, like the Disney TV series and the classic Douglas Fairbanks film; he even had his own anime series in the 1990s!

But starting this month, people can see the original "caped crusader" on stage, as Constellation Theatre Company presents the world-premiere play: Zorro.

Zorro was co-written by Janet Allard and Eleanor Holdridge; Holdridge is also directing the play. The D.C. resident has helmed countless plays across the country. But Zorro marks her debut as a playwright.

"I always grew up with Zorro," Holdridge says. "I loved it. Like when I was a little nerdy, geeky kid I would watch it on TV, the TV series, and I would watch all the movies.

"And then one day I was in California, doing an opera in this beautiful hilly resort area. And I just all of a sudden looked across the landscape, and I kind of had this image of Zorro riding."

Holdridge has always considered herself a director, but she was so determined to bring her childhood hero to life that she enlisted the help of Allard, "because she has this great, quirky style and she just writes incredible characters and gets some kind of pulpy fun of who we are as Americans."

Using Johnston McCulley's original pulp serial as their source, the women fashioned a coming-of-age story set in 1840s California, about this guy, Don Diego, who comes home from college, "and his parents are suddenly not who he thinks they are," Holdridge explains. "The world is not what he thinks. He has the distance to see the world is not what it should be or what he wants it to be. He realizes it's his turn to step up, because if he doesn't, no one will."

And thus, Diego creates his alter ego: Zorro. Or, as Constellation Theatre Company's artistic director Allison Stockman calls him: "the first modern superhero."

"He was the person who inspired Batman and a lot of superheroes after that," she says. "So he's in my heart, and I was counting on him being in the hearts of other people as well."

Stockman says another reason she chose Zorro is it jives with her company's mission: doing large-ensemble plays that ditch realism or naturalism, in favor of what she calls all-out "theatricality."

"The design is very imaginative," she explains. "The people in the play speak better than we do in real life. They move in a larger, more meaningful way. And there are opportunities for things like music and dance and fighting."

So with Zorro, you'll hear original music, with touches of flamenco, spaghetti westerns and the HBO series Deadwood. You'll sit on either side of an unusual, alley-shaped set. And as for fighting? You'll witness plenty of swordplay — even up on the staircases that diagonally bisect each side of the audience.

"The staircases form a 'Z' in the space, actually, which I don't think the audience will appreciate, but we take great delight in!" Stockman adds with a laugh.

Eleanor Holdridge has been "taking great delight" in seeing her initial vision of Zorro come to life. But she admits this new role of director-slash-playwright isn't easy.

"It's very weird to direct something I've written," she says. "There are moments when a scene isn't working. And my director self gets mad at my playwright self and thinks, 'Wow, how can I possibly make this work?'"

In other words, she wonders whether she should try and re-direct the scene? Or just re-write it?

"And then one of the interesting things is in the original pulp [series], they're very much stock characters," Holdridge adds. "So we very much tried to write stakes into the characters: what their back story was, we figured out what they wanted.

"But then you get into rehearsal and the actor comes up with their own idea of what those are. And as a director, I need to be able to say, 'Wow, that's great. That supports the play.' And I need to divorce myself from what I thought I knew to be true."

Actually, that's a running theme throughout the entire play: this idea of what we think we know to be true. With Allard and Holdridge's characters, the exterior and the interior don't necessarily match up.

"Everyone puts up masks in society," Holdridge says. "It's how they deal, and it's how they work, and it's something we all do."

Now, granted, more often than not, in our society these masks aren't literal. But if you happen to be that "bold renegade," who "carves a 'Z' with his blade, a 'Z' that stands for Zorro"?

That mask is what makes you go down in history.

Zorro runs at Source from Jan. 17 through Feb. 17, 2013.

[Music: "Zorro" by Norman Foster and George Bruns and performed by the Mellomen]

Photos: Zorro

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