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The Mark of Zorro: Reviews
May 2 - June 22, 2008

From the Chicago Sun-Times

'Zorro' leaves bold mark with breathtaking antics
May 13, 2008
By Hedy Weiss

Confession: When I walked into Lifeline Theatre on Sunday to see "The Mark of Zorro," all I knew about that masked man dubbed "The Curse of Capistrano" was what I recalled of the 1940 film version starring Tyrone Power (seen on some late-night movie channel) and my few glimpses of the Disney television series of the late 1950s that my brother used to watch on an old Zenith.

Now, thanks to Lifeline, I am a complete Zorro convert. Credit Katie McLean's zesty, playfully romantic stage adaptation of the 1919 pulp fiction classic by Illinois-born Johnston McCulley; director Dorothy Milne's action-packed, endlessly ingenious, deliciously tongue-in-cheek staging; Alan Donahue's handsome mission-style architectural set, and Geoff Coates, whose power-packed fight choreography is performed just inches from the audience.

Above all, credit James Elly, who plays Don Diego Vega (aka Zorro), the aristocratic young Robin Hood of colonial era California. In a literally breathtaking performance, the small, agile actor is so fleet, graceful and droll you might easily mistake him for a Spanish Mikhail Baryshnikov. And it's difficult to decide whether he is better as the spoiled, cowardly, perpetually "fatigued" rich boy or the dashing, confident, ever- humane freedom fighter.

McLean has done a fine job of balancing the two major threads of the Zorro story. First, there is the swordplay-filled adventure tale set in motion by the exploits of a conscience-stricken young aristocrat who rebels in his own supremely flamboyant (yet masked) way against the cruelty and injustice of the Spanish governor and his army. Then there is the love story that wittily unites two strong-willed, demanding young lovers, one of whom must cloak his true identity, while the other, Lolita (Rosa de Guindos, a Madrid-bred beauty with easy charm), must be boldly frank.

Milne, in collaboration with Donahue, bravura costume designer Branamira Ivanova, light man John Sanchez and sound master Victoria DeIorio, conjures rollicking horse rides, rousing brawls, daredevil chases and a couple of "big kiss" scenes as if on a full film set.

Kudos, too, to Robert Kauzlaric as Zorro's heinous rival; Don Bender as Zorro's in-the-dark dad; Larry Baldacci and Allison Cain as Lolita's status-conscious parents, and a cast "of thousands" that numbers just 13.

Four stars for "Z."




From the Chicago Tribune

In this zesty 'Zorro,' the secret weapon is James Elly
May 15, 2008
By Chris Jones

The joint has barely enough room to swing a rapier. And it could never have accommodated the egos, spittle or fiscal demands of Tyrone Power or Douglas Fairbanks. But when it comes to swashbuckling literary adaptations, Lifeline Theatre has the corner on the retro market.

Even by Lifeline's lofty standards for pulpy, old-fashioned theatrical amusement, "The Mark of Zorro" is an uncommonly good time for anybody older than 10.

Created by Johnston McCulley in 1919, this fictional masked avenger of old Spanish California is a combination of Robin Hood, Superman and the Zapatistas. No wonder Hollywood and television were early converts to the charms of the so-called "Curse of the Capistrano" - and the prolific McCulley obliged by penning more than 60 Zorro stories.

For this new live "Mark," Katie McLean has penned an original adaptation of the 1920 novel, wherein Senor Z wages war against an oppressive governor and his various brutish henchmen. Zorro has his Clark Kent side. In his quieter moments, he masquerades as the foppish scion of a wealthy ranchero, only to burst into life when he dons his signature black mask.

The secret weapon in Dorothy Milne's production is a young actor named James Elly, who manages to convince as both fop and superhero. Elly isn't offstage for more than a matter of seconds all night long - and he has to survive more sword fights than even the most accomplished Shakespearean. It's a killer performance - literally and righteously -and it charms the audience.

And there's a whole lot more to admire.

Milne and McLean get the tone exactly right - firmly tongue-in-cheek but sufficiently respectful of the adventure tradition that even the most cynical adolescent in the audience would be able to cling on to some sense of romantic decorum.

And even though the stage is tiny, Alan Donahue has built an amazingly inventive set that allows Zorro to repel all borders from rooftops, walls, windows and horses.

In one spectacular coup de theater, Elly engages in a gloriously entertaining sword fight while swinging happily from a chandelier.

Zorro eventually woos his love, Lolita, of course, played by the charming Rosa de Guindos, a genuine Spaniard to boot. The show would probably have been even better with a few minutes off the running time.

And don't show up expecting profound literature or subtle drama—this is the stuff of over-ripe accents, grand gestures and exuberant theatricality.

But for a little box by the "L" tracks to contain 13 performers all demonstrably dedicated to the unpretentious, can-do provision of such timeless pleasures?

Only in this town, folks.




From Time Out Chicago

May 22, 2008
By Zac Thompson

Any new adaptation of McCulley’s popular adventure stories - about a masked avenger defending the weak from brutish soldiers and greedy politicians in 19th-century California - must contend with the string of celluloid Zorros who have swashbuckled their way into the popular consciousness. Lifeline’s boisterous, inventive production, from McLean’s brisk adaptation of the original novel, neither ignores these past Zorros (a line extending from Douglas Fairbanks to Antonio Banderas) nor apes them.

Milne’s staging, despite its relatively small scale, has many of the elements that make Zorro so exciting onscreen: swelling music to underscore the romantic scenes, kinetic sword fights (skillfully choreographed by Geoff Coates) and a breathtaking chase scene in which a swinging light fixture stands in for Zorro’s steed (it shouldn’t work but somehow does). The director distinguishes herself from earlier handlers of the material, however, by showing a playful awareness of the story’s inherent silliness: Spanish accents are exaggerated, wooing scenes call to mind telenovelas, and the gulf between Zorro and his milquetoast alter ego is ludicrously vast.

That the show manages to maintain its cheeky air without slipping into camp or parody is a credit to the cast, especially James Elly who plays the man behind the mask with tongue-in-cheek élan. Equally deft with a sword and a quip (and employing an accent somewhere between Speedy Gonzales and Cousin Balki), Elly’s Zorro pays tribute to such dashing Z-men as Fairbanks and Guy Williams while winkingly undercutting them.




From Windy City Times

May 21, 2008
By Mary Shen Barnidge

Amid the plethora of knockoffs, parodies and spoofs based on Johnston McCulley's classic swashbuckler, it is too easy to overlook the social issues - specifically, the call for citizens to unite in rebellion against corrupt leaders - at the roots of its conflict. Our setting might be Spanish California circa 1800, but the masked bandit who rides by night to thwart and humiliate the officers of a self-serving governor is as much a crusader for justice as any modern reformer.

McCulley draws on many of his literary genre's predecessors in populating his arena (the lineage of his nobly-born, but morally dissolute, Captain Ramón, for example, can be traced to 1651 and Calderón's Mayor Of Zalamea), and his story's original structure as a serial could easily reduce the action to a Road-Runner series of chase-and-clash skirmishes. But Katie McLean's adaptation progresses with an efficiency that has us eagerly anticipating each new event, while Dorothy Milne's direction sets a brisk, but never hurried, pace that propels us along at a tempo where never a second is wasted in self-conscious sniggering.

This principle also applies to the actors. Playing this material demands total immersion into each character's individual truth - even when occupying a personality for barely a few minutes, as Lifeline's trademark multiple-casting requires. But the ensemble for this production is at the top of its form, both physically and mentally, whether crossing blades, courting sweethearts or riding to the rescue of the intrepid hero. (That's right - the spectacle includes a thrilling pursuit on horseback, and you'll have to see for yourself how Milne and award-winning fight choreographer Geoff Coates pull it off on a stage measuring a mere 28 feet by 30 feet.)

James Elly exhibits appropriate panache as the gallant with the angelic face and the lightning rapier, as does Rosa de Guindos (sporting a genuine Madrileño accent) as his valiant lady, and Larry Baldacci and Don Bender as their unwitting elders, along with an assortment of villains, notably Robert Kauzlaric doing his reptilian turn as the lecherous Captain and a bullicioso-voiced Manny Tamayo in the role of the boastful Sgt. Gonzales. So dazzling is the agility displayed by the 13-member cast as they scramble, slink and swarm over Alan Donahue's sleepy desert pueblo, their athletic exuberance enhanced by Victoria DeIorio's Andulusian incidental music, that when it wraps up after a breathless two hours (with one intermission), the exhilaration is like an explosion a fresh-air factory.




From Chicago Free Press

May 21, 2008
By Web Behrens

Summer 2008 is, by apparent Hollywood decree, the summer of the superhero: Iron Man’s already on screen, with Batman, the Hulk and Hellboy all on tap. Plugging into this zeitgeist with aplomb, Lifeline Theatre delivers a rousing show, "The Mark of Zorro,' in which one can easily discover the roots of today’s superheroes’ family tree.

American pop culture has a love affair with lighthearted action-oriented fare, and this witty show - full of clashing swords and laugh-out-loud banter - could easily capture a wide-ranging audience. If you’ve got daughters, sons, nieces or nephews in your life, here’s your chance to show them that live theater can be just as much fun as the movies. Or, at least, almost - and all without multi-million-dollar special effects.

Lifeline ensemble member Katie McLean delivers a smart adaptation of the original Zorro tale (written by pulp author Johnston McCulley, native of nearby Ottawa, Illinois), jumping into the story in medias res: Zorro, a sort of Robin Hood of early 19th-century southern California, has already established himself as a rogue protector of powerless citizens - peasants and caballeros alike - who are being exploited by a greedy governor and his soldiers.

McLean’s wink-wink script gets a good deal of mileage out of immediately making the audience privy to Zorro’s secret identity. Don Diego Vega (like Bruce Wayne, a hero clearly inspired by him) is the richest lad in the land but affects an inept diffidence. Watching actor James Elly negotiate Don Diego’s deception is a true joy: Elly lends a certain charm to one persona’s dandified cowardice, while his black-clad vigilante is never less than a confident stud. (Any IML visitors seeking a break from their play parties this weekend should head north to Rogers Park to enjoy all the butch boot-clad actors on the Lifeline stage.)

Director Dorothy Milne lends the proceedings the right light touch, giving plenty of play to the comedic tension inherent in the bizarre love triangle, which pits Don Diego against himself for the affections of Lolita, played with appropriate feist by Rosa de Guindos. (Another partial descendant of Zorro’s, Superman/Clark Kent, has the same trouble with Lois.) It wouldn’t hurt if Elly and de Guindos took a few beats more, in certain tense moments, to appreciate the ever-increasing stakes in their dangerous love affair, but it’s hard to fault the rollicking rhythm Milne and company builds.

Other usual suspects among Lifeline’s resident artistic crew also bring their A game: Scenic designer Alan Donahue does wonders in a tight space, creating faux-adobe walls for Zorro to scale and a chandelier that serves a thrilling double duty in Act Two. Meanwhile, sound designer Victoria DeIorio’s often-subtle work adds to the ambience. The ensemble also clearly benefits from the work of dialect coach Elise Kauzlaric and fight choreographer Geoff Coates. Special kudos go to Elly and Robert Kauzlaric, Zorro’s primary antagonist, for pulling off their swordfights so smoothly.




From the Daily Herald

'Zorro' making its mark
May 16, 2008
By Barbara Vitello

The hint of camp that hangs over Lifeline Theatre's "The Mark of Zorro" puts a smile on your face without putting you off.

Were it played any broader or directed with a less sure hand, the world premiere of ensemble member Katie McLean's merry adaptation of the Johnston McCulley novel might have crossed the line and descended into silliness. "Zorro" doesn't, not in the hands of Lifeline artistic director Dorothy Milne, whose imaginative direction (including a truly inspired chase on horseback) reflects an understanding of moderation as well as a knack for managing melodrama.

Milne's actors walk up to that line and even peer over it. But with the exception of a couple of cast members whose outsize performances don't quite complement the tone adopted by the rest of the ensemble, they don't stray too far and the disarming "Zorro" stays on track.

Combining romance, humor and lively stage combat, this swashbuckler plays like a TV drama from the golden age. With its chaste romance, swordplay that is mostly without serious consequences, paper tiger villains and magnanimous victors, Lifeline's production tips its gaucho hat to the Disney Studios television series based on McCulley's hero, that ran on ABC from 1957 to 1959.

Essentially about the obligation to oneself, one's family and one's community, the play centers on its titular hero -- the enigmatic, Robin Hood-style defender of the oppressed -- and his aristocratic, somewhat foppish alter-ego Don Diego Vega. Both roles are played by the nimble James Elly. A slender, unconventional but wholly convincing hero, Elly's seamless shift from simpering smile to confident smirk reflect the ease with which he negotiates the dual roles.

The story unfolds in 19th-century California, whose mission-style haciendas are simply evoked by set designer Alan Donahue. Bowing to the wishes of his wealthy father Don Alejandro (the imposing Don Bender), Diego agrees to court the feisty Lolita, played by the charming Rosa de Guindos. Tiring easily and wooing awkwardly, the ambivalent Diego fails to impress her, which disappoints her parents Don Carlos (Larry Baldacci) and Dona Catalina (Allison Cain), whose fortune has eroded under the corrupt governor played by Hanlon Smith-Dorsey (who also plays Fray Felipe, a "rogue Franciscan" friar sympathetic to Zorro).

Lolita has another suitor in Captain Ramon (Robert Kauzlaric, nicely insinuating as the villain of the piece), but of course Elly's dashing Zorro proves more desirable. Rounding out the cast is Manny Tamayo as the blustering Sergeant Gonzales, eager to capture the elusive outlaw and pocket the reward.

Like every good melodrama, "Zorro" comes with a manipulative score. And like every good swashbuckler, it features great sword-fighting, with Elly and Kauzlaric making especially well-matched opponents. Geoff Coates earns praise for his rollicking fight choreography. Exploding across Lifeline's small stage, it dominates the action-packed second act of this wonderfully good-humored show whose flirtation with camp takes nothing away from what is a jolly good evening of theater.




From Copley News Service

May 13, 2008
By Dan Zeff

The Lifeline staging of "The Mark of Zorro" is a triumph, no surprise for a company that has carved an essential niche for itself in area theater with its adaptations of literary works. What is notable is how the production triumphs on so many levels.

"The Mark of Zorro" is a novel written by a forgotten American author named Johnston McCulley. He first published the story as a magazine serial in 1919 under the name "The Curse of Capistrano." It didn¹t take its more familiar name until Douglas Fairbanks Sr. made a classic silent movie out of the film in 1920.

McCulley's original is a takeoff on the hero who avenges the poor and oppressed. The gimmick is that the hero wears a disguise to cover his true identity, usually as a humdrum real life figure nobody would suspect of being a dashing figure who swoops around to defeat the forces of evil. Consider the Scarlet Pimpernel, Superman, and Spider-Man, all champions of the common man and woman in their fight against the tyranny of the powerful while masquerading as ineffectual civilians.

In "The Mark of Zorro," the hero is a flamboyant swordsman named Zorro, the protector of the defenseless in colonial Spanish California during the early 1800's. In real life Zorro (a Spanish word for fox) is Don Diego Vega, who presents himself as an effete, cowardly young aristocrat. As Zorro he is transformed, masked and wearing black with sword flashing, to rescue damsels in distress and other victims of the cruel Spanish governor and his chief henchman, Captain Ramon.

The audience at the Lifeline Theatre would expect lots of swashbuckling action, some romance, and some spoofing comedy, all of which Katie McLean's adaptation supplies in abundance. But customers might not anticipate a show that provides real dramatic tension and full-blooded characters. The audience likely will enter the theater anticipating a cartoon, but they will leave the theater thrilled they have seen a genuine play, beautifully acted and miraculously staged in the tiny Lifeline playing area.

The heart of the production is James Elly in a breakout performance as Don Diego/Zorro. Elly is a delight as the bland and faintly swishy Don Diego. The don's reluctant courtship scenes with the spunky Lolita Pulido are a comic hoot, but when Elly dons his mask and morphs into Zorro, he's every inch the dashing and courageous hero with flashing sword and swirling cape. Zorro's swordfights with the bad guys, notably Captain Ramon, are high-risk adventures with no margin for error, either for the performers or spectators sitting in the first row.

Elly is handsomely supported by a talented supporting cast, notably Don Bender as Don Diego's demanding father, Robert Kauzlaric as the insolent Captain Ramon, Rosa de Guindos as the strong-minded Lolita, Manny Tamayo as the blowhard Sergeant Gonzales, Hanlon Smith-Dorsey as the nasty governor and a good guy friar, and Allison Cain and Larry Baldacci as Lolita's parents desperate to have their daughter accept the waffling proposal of the wealthy but uninspiring Don Diego.

The versatile ensemble consists of B. Diego Colon, Eduardo Garcia, Jonathan Helvey, Brian Kilborn, and Jennifer Munoz. They switch from the governor's soldiers to peasants to caballeros who eventually ride with Zorro against the forces of injustice. The group changes in and out of costumes backstage in nanoseconds and the gusto they bring to their brawling and singing and dancing is terrific.

Katie McLean's adaptation crams an impressive amount of story into the two hours of performing time, respecting the material where a lesser dramatist would have patronized the material as a nudge-nudge wink-wink comedy. Even the villains in the narrative are three-dimensional, Captain Ramon's fault being more one of arrogance than comic strip evil. At the end of the story, the governor and the captain are not killed, just humiliated by the newly empowered downtrodden. What could have been a B western turns out to be an exciting and absorbing story, leavened by comedy.

The backstage kudos start with Dorothy Milne's amazing direction, squeezing a remarkable amount of action and crowd scenes fluently onto that small Lifeline stage. Alan Donohue's set is dominated by a replica of an adobe mission building exterior that allows Zorro plenty of sudden derring-do entrances from atop the pile, supplying the production with vertical as well as horizontal energy. Branimira Ivanova's costumes look just right for their period. John Sanchez's lighting and the sound design by Victoria Delorio are a big help. And a standing ovation goes to Geoff Coates for his fight choreography.

A most entertaining evening.

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