Present Fence: Constellation’s update of Zorro retains plenty of swashbuckling.
Present Fence: Constellation’s update of Zorro retains plenty of swashbuckling.

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Good over evil isn’t the biggest triumph in Constellation Theatre Company’s world-premiere production of Zorro; it’s set design over cinematography. Thanks to movies stretching from Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 silent The Mark of Zorro to Antonio Banderas’ eye candy–dispensing updates in the 1990s and 2000s, filmgoers associate the 19th century vigilante with gorgeous desert vistas and the silhouette of a masked man astride a black steed. So it’s a credit to Constellation’s design team that theatergoers never miss the spacious California setting in this likable production performed in a black-box theater.

A faux-cobblestone street bisects the space, with risers on either side. Most of the action happens at the far ends, with occasional duels in the center. The arrangement helps keep the show moving; in one scene, a civilly disobedient priest is strung up and lashed, and in the next, staged on the opposite side, pillars and a few props recreate a hacienda. How this Zorro moves, unfortunately, isn’t quite matched by what it has to say.

Eleanor Holdridge, a Catholic University professor, directs the play and co-wrote the script, which like Zorro himself appears to be torn between identities. As a tongue-in-cheek action play, it succeeds. When Danny Gavigan, as our masked hero, rallies the cabelleros, he closes his speech by trailing off and muttering, “I talk too much and talk is cheap. Come let’s do some damage.” Where the play runs into trouble is its too-clever mirroring of Spanish drama. Zorro’s everyday persona, Don Diego de la Vega, is a bookish type who talks of Cervantes and attempts to woo the lovely Lolita with a copy of Calderón’s Life Is a Dream. The actors speak overformally in variations of Spanish colonial accents. “There speaks mercy in your heart,” is Zorro’s passive-voice response when an impassioned Lolita begs him to be more careful in his pursuits of robbing the rich to serve the poor.

As Zorro, Gavigan continues his successful run as D.C.’s go-to athletic leading man. (His recent roles include a collegiate rugby player in Really Really at Signature and an enlisted soldier in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at Round House.) Andres Talero doesn’t quite have the magnetism for Zorro’s political and romantic rival, Captain Ramon. He can fence, however, and well choreographed fights—in slip-and-you’ll-stab-someone proximity to the audience—are one reason the play is so watchable. But if you sit in the front row, watch your feet. There are no pounding hooves in this Zorro, like there would be in the movies. But the actors wear strapping boots, and they’re out to portray live-action heroes.