Theatre department reanimates ‘Zorro’ with modern interpretation

The Theatre and New Dance Department is drawing its curtains for the second time this month with its latest virtual production, “Zorro X2,” where all viewers are guaranteed a front-room seat.

Unlike any previous performances, the event will include a live talkback with the crew members, creating an opportunity for the audience to virtually engage and learn about the production. The Cal Poly Pomona community is now invited to register for the free live streaming on Nov. 20.

The play, written by Department Chair Bernardo Solano, illustrates a modernized Zorro, the classic Mexican vigilante debuted in the novel, “The Curse of Capistrano” by writer Johnson McCulley in 1919. The character is well-known in following the Robin Hood archetype who defends the powerless while dressed in his signature black costume accompanied by the iconic rapier sword. Without disturbing the foundation of the classic “Zorro” series, Solano retells the story with a 21st-century twist, adding a sadistic chief of security and immigrant laborers.

Contrary to the original plot, Solano’s reimagining of the cloaked avenger portrays Zorro as two individual beings — hence the title — who are introduced as a grimy homeless man and a forlorn computer geek.

Through the untraditional depictions of the heroic figures, the play intends to portray that anyone — regardless of their gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status — can become a hero, according to director Linda Bisesti, professor and head of acting and voice at the department.

The heroic characteristics can be found within any individual who strives for empowerment, Solano said, while alluding to 17-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg as a modern-day hero.

“This teenager galvanized the world in terms of speaking out on climate change, so it’s not such a naïve idea that somebody can make a difference,” Solano said. “I’m hoping that the play is a small addition to the plays and literature that support that individuals can speak out and empower themselves and fight injustice.”

In addition to empowerment, the virtual production also aims to celebrate diverse ethnicities, including the large Hispanic population at CPP. In alignment with its mission to promote diversity, the department has always been attentive to color-conscious casting, according to Bisesti. However, it intends to be “more conscious with the state of the world” and believes that diverse representation is needed more than ever.

With “Zorro X2” being produced remotely, the crew began preparations three months prior to its usual schedule to accommodate the anticipated technical challenges. Beginning preparations in June, the team completed the project over five months.

Similar to the department’s previous virtual productions, cast members were expected to adopt multiple roles — some days brandishing a sword by the green screen as a performer and other days fidgeting with the lighting and sound system. Each member was provided with necessary filming equipment available through on-campus pick-up only after completing the university’s mandatory online COVID-19 safety training and health screening test.

Lead actor and first-year theatre student Oscar Rodriguez, who plays one of the versions of Zorro, shared the challenges of embracing his new responsibilities with his “love-hate relationship with computers.” Nonetheless, he welcomed the obstacles, believing that the experiences will further develop his personal and professional growth.

Aside from the technical difficulties, Rodriguez shined light on the disadvantages of acting from home.

“You have to expand your imagination more because you’re by yourself and you’re not with anyone in the room,” Rodriguez said. “It’s very hard to look at the computer screen and feel the emotions and be in the character, but we were able to work it out.”

Actress and fourth-year theatre student Renee Turner echoed the challenges of working remotely, including the poor translation of physical movements when filming through Zoom. With the intricate sword fight sequences captured within “Zorro X2,” the delivery of the scenes could have been enhanced through an in-person performance, Turner added.

Cast members also struggled without the usual live audiences surrounding the stage.

“Actors sometimes feed off of the audience’s energy and vice vera, so not having that makes it harder,” Turner said. “Since everything is filmed ahead of time, we won’t know their immediate reactions.”

Despite the many adjustments, some crew members including Sam Lopez, the production’s video designer and fourth-year technical theatre and design student, discovered new interests through the unique virtual experience. Without a physical set, Lopez’s role shifted from a projections designer to creating transition scenes for the digital production.

Though diving into unfamiliar territory, he appreciated gaining problem-solving skills and discovered his passion for designing animation. According to Lopez, the digital component of the production almost mirrors a filmmaking process as opposed to a traditional play, which opened possibilities of pursuing a career in the film industry. “Zorro X2” influenced his career decisions more than any projects he previously worked on, Lopez added.

Undeterred by the steep learning curve, the student cast navigates between comedy and seriousness to depict the realistic clashes of today’s culture and class stratification. Through the reimagined Zorro, Solano’s approach to the play offers thought-provoking themes with tightly packed layers and symbolism. One of the charms of the mysterious, masked character is the freedom it offers to the audience for interpretation of who the shadowed figure may be.

Although lead actor Rodriguez grew up watching the “Zorro” series, embodying the character in the play allowed for deeper perspective and understanding.

“In my interpretation, Zorro is a symbol,” Rodriguez said. “As he wears all black, he takes on all the darkness, sadness and injustice from the world. He becomes the voice for the voiceless and the bearer of everyone’s hope and dreams.”

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