I don’t mind telling you that as a 5-year-old, I spent many afternoons pretending to be a Mexican. Or at least I dressed up as Zorro, the hero of a Walt Disney TV show popular at the time. I strutted up and down my Northern California street in a black burglar mask and little vaquero hat, a plastic cutlass tucked confidently in my belt. I may have even worn a cape, but perhaps that came later, when I became a theater critic. With its Spanish Revival neighborhoods, my California Mission town, San Rafael, appeared like the very villages Zorro liberated on TV.

The question of whether Zorro was really a patriot of pre-independence Mexico, or a cultural comprador masquerading as one, animates Zorro in Hell, a most grown-up satire now appearing at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre. Culture Clash, the comic trio comprising Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza, examines the pop icon’s roots and his effect upon the Latino psyche, as well as the possible motives for his embrace by gringo culture. (Can Zorro, we wonder, be an ancestor of El Pachuco, the outsize narrator of Luis Valdez’s musical Zoot Suit?) What they find is a complicated figure conjured from the romantic Californio muck of pulp fiction, plucked from oblivion by early Hollywood, and improbably appropriated by Latinos throughout the world as a symbol of independence — and macho autonomy.

Zorro in Hell opens with a cynical writer named Clasher (Montoya), attired in a straitjacket and Hannibal Lecter mask, who’s being held prisoner for subversive activities in a mental hospital by a pair of Homeland Security spooks. Shot up with drugs, Clasher recounts a long, strange trip that began when he checked into a remote California inn run by a 200-Year-Old Woman (Sharon Lockwood) and her slightly older major-domo, Don Ringo (Sigüenza). The inn is a weathered crossroads of insurgent politics and California literature, a historical hostel whose lodgers included Oscar Wilde and Jacks London and Kerouac, and which provided the movie set for the first Zorro feature, starring Douglas Fairbanks.

Clasher, fortified with a bottle of laudanum and a “multiculti Other Voices” grant to explore his ethnic roots, checks in to do a little hatchet job on the “dashing caballero.” This upsets Ms. 200 and Don Ringo, both of whom cherish Zorro’s reputation, along with the memory of real-life bandit-poet Joaquin Murrieta.

The innkeeper hopes Clasher will become the latest incarnation of El Zorro (“the fox”) and save her property from an eminent-domain land grab by Sacramento. For the woman and Don Ringo (“I was the first Chi-CAN-no!” he announces often), a legend’s provenance is not as important as how the myth evolves into something beneficial. (Which may explain why you don’t see a lot of kids in Chinatown dressed as Charlie Chan.)

Though Clasher asks the familiar rhetorical questions about who gets to write history and who has to suffer the fallout, the play (which clocks in at about 100 minutes of stage time) is no ideological debate. Rather, it’s a kaleidoscope of the visions Clasher experiences: He’s raped by a talking-bear psychiatrist named Kyle (Salinas), he sees characters from film projections of Zorro movies come to life, and is visited by a pair of brokeback cowboys. By play’s end, Clasher realizes that while it is people — often with dubious motives — who create legends, it is social circumstances that validate those legends.

Zorro in Hell is directed with gusto by Tony Taccone, who developed this production at his Berkeley Rep space before taking it to La Jolla Playhouse last year. It may sound cruel, but the work still has a ways to go before it reaches critical mass. At its best, the show displays its creators’ comic audacity and sketches a psychedelic mural of California history — reminiscent of Sandow Birk’s hallucinatory paintings, inspired by French classicism, of gang and civil warfare in urban California. At its worst, however, Zorro in Hell mistakes for satire the mere recital of local place names (Trader Joe’s), hot news topics (Mirthala Salinas) and movie references (The Godfather, among many). It’s one thing to quote Noam Chomsky or Guillermo Gomez-Peña, but quite another to embed these organically into a punch-line setup. Instead, Zorro’s name-dropping brand of standup merely distracts.

This might be one reason why Act 1 succeeds so well and Act 2 appears so frustratingly unfocused, even though it includes a great re-creation of an old Republic serial about Zorro and a sinister gold idol, mixed with the appearance of an evil, Austrian-accented governor who arrives driving a mini-Hummer. In order to get from Clasher’s straitjacket to this scene, we need to learn just why a swashbuckling hero cloned from The Scarlet Pimpernel became a symbol of Chicano pride — and for that you sometimes need to cut the comedy.

The show is most effective when placing pop culture in historical context. There’s a wonderful scene in which the laudanum-soused Clasher flops on his bed as the chop of helicopter blades migrates across his room — barely pricking our memory of Apocalypse Now before merging, full blown, into a parody of the Saigon hotel scene in which Martin Sheen’s character flips out to the Doors’ “The End.” This is everything stage comedy is meant to be — fast, terse and visually textured. (Extra praise to sound and lighting designers Robbin E. Broad and Alexander V. Nichols, respectively.)

In some ways, Zorro in Hell is a riskier and more complex undertaking than Culture Clash’s 2006 crowd-pleaser, Water & Power. The latter show, performed at the Mark Taper Forum, was a comedic melodrama whose subject was Latino politics in Los Angeles. It was mostly confined to a motel room and had a dramatic arc that was visible for miles. Zorro in Hell, however, constantly moves beyond Clasher’s inn room to the inner room of his mind, among several other locales. Here, set designer Christopher Acebo performs essential magic in building a versatile turntable stage that not only shifts between locations but incorporates film projections.

Taccone’s actors, who include Joseph Kamal as Zorro and his foppish (actually, swishbuckling) alter ego, Don Diego, are exemplary (Montoya, Salinas and Sigüenza all play multiple roles), even if their lines are not always the subtlest. If an actor has to shout “Fuck Bush!” during the show, then the writers either can’t control their political piety or don’t trust the audience to think for itself. For most of the evening, though, Culture Clash skewers the politically corrected and connected accordingly.

The Zorro I knew as a 5-year-old was a heroic antidote to the clownish Mexican stereotype that was only then, in the late 1950s, just beginning to recede from TV and movie screens. In fact, throughout its long Hollywood lineage, the Zorro mythos has mostly respected both Don Diego’s bravery and his Mexican heritage. (For a comprehensive Zorro Web site discussing his evolution and attendant issues, see www.­zorrolegend.com.) The reasons are not so easy to explain.

Part of it may be the distinction Anglo audiences created in their minds between literary and historical Mexicans (Benito Juárez, Emiliano Zapata) — nobles who posed no modern threat — and the Stinkin’ Badges variety enshrined by cartoons, Fritos ads and lesser cowboy movies. Or it may be our perceptions of Zorro being more Castilian than mestizo, an act of ethnic denial common to the time. For instance, in John Huston’s Why We Fight WWII propaganda films, America’s ethnic groups are paraded past the camera, Latinos were shown on horseback and called “Spaniards.” And, as one Raymond Chandler character says by way of claiming his racial superiority, “My blood is Spanish, pure Spanish. Not nigger-Mex and not Yaqui-Mex.”

Culture Clash try to examine all the aspects of what has made Zorro an enduring icon for Anglos and Latinos alike. Their inability, so far, to come to terms with Zorro doesn’t spell defeat but only underscores the elusiveness of their subject. In the end, we’re still left asking, “Who was that masked man?”

ZORRO IN HELL | Written by CULTURE CLASH (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Sigüenza) | At the RICARDO MONTALBÁN THEATRE, 1615 Vine St., Hlywd. | Through August 19 | (877) 359-6776

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