I have just reviewed two plays for Backstage that could both be called Spanish plays, although they could not be more different.
One, “Fuenteovejuna,” at Repertorio Espanol, was written in the early 1600’s by Félix Arturo Lope d
e Vega y Carpio, who is considered the Shakespeare of the Spanish Golden Age. It is based on a historical event of more than a century earlier: In 1476, the townspeople of the Spanish town of Fuente Obejuna rose up against a tyrannous ruler and
ed him. When King Ferdinand sent a judge to investigate, demanding to know the identity of the killer, all those he interviewed answered: Fuente Obejuna.
The Repertorio production oddly transposes the action of the play to a modern office setting, so that a wedding, for example, is conducted on swivel office chairs. But the actors speak the Spanish dialogue of Lope de Vega (with English subtitles available in front of every seat): There is no question this is a “Spanish play.”
What about “The Mark of Zorro”? The character of Zorro was created in 1919 by a New York-based writer named Johnston McCulley, and has many of the basic elements of the very American superheroes that would follow, from Batman to Spider-Man to Superman– he wears a costume that conceals his identity while he fights crime; he’s a nebbishy guy who is in love with the girl next door, but she is indifferent to him, infatuated instead with the hero who keeps on rescuing her, not realizing they are one and the same person. He very specifically lives in California.
The version of the Zorro tale that is at New Victory this month was written in 2009 by Danny Anderson for a Scottish theater company called Visible Fictions, which imbues the swashbuckling adventure story with a charming low-budget aesthetic — just three characters play all the parts, and they are assisted by a colorful array of paper props and cardboard puppets.
So how is this “Spanish”?
1. The action takes place in the California of the 18th Century, when it was ruled by Spain.
2. The character’s birth name is Don Diego de la Vega, and the name he gives himself, Zorro, means fox in Spanish. In most of the stories, he has spent his youth being educated in Spain.
3. While the first movie based on Zorro, the silent film “The Mark of Zorro” in 1920, starred Douglas Fairbanks, the role has lately become a prized one for Latin actors. Henry Darrow (born Enrique Tomás Delgado) was the first Latino actor to play the role, in the 1983 television series “ Zorro and Son.”
The Spanish-born actor Antonio Banderas played Zorro in two movies, “The Mask of Zorro” in 1998 and “The Legend of Zorro” in 2005. Richard Gutierrez played the role in the 2009 television series “Zorro” in the Philippines. The Mexican actor Gael García Bernal is set to star in a Fox film entitled “Zorro Reborn,” that is said to take place in a “post-apocalyptic future.”
4. In a popular culture in which so many Latin characters are little more than either victims or victimizers, it makes sense that so many Spanish-speakers are happy to embrace Zorro. In his 1998 essay in Salon hooked to the release of the first Banderas Zorro, “The Face of Zorro,” Luis Valdez (La Bamba, Zoot Suit) wrote of seeing Zorro for the first time:
“To an 8-year-old migrant Chicano kid, it was a revelation, and the start of a strange mystery: Who is this guy who’s supposed to be me? And for the last 50 years, as a playwright, activist and filmmaker, I have been looking under his mask.” In the essay, Valdez is not pleased with what he sees, seeing hypocrisy
But by 2005, when Isabel Allende published her novel “Zorro,” giving the character an Indian mother, Zorro was not just being embraced, but reclaimed.