Correction: This review has been amended. An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified the star of the 1960s TV series “Zorro.” It was Guy Williams, not Guy Madison.
Let’s stipulate right off the bat that Danny Gavigan makes for a dashing caped crusader. No, not the one with the souped-up car and the sidekick and the high Hollywood profile. This other guy does the fight-for-justice thing in dustier precincts, with a leather mask and a sword, the latter used for duels or carving the letter Z into walls and bad guys’ faces.
Slash! Slash! Slash! Por supuesto, señor: He’s Zorro, in Constellation Theatre’s new play of that title, receiving its world premiere in the Source space on 14th Street NW. Gavigan, a valued player wherever he turns up, whether as a low-rent hoodlum (in Studio Theatre’s “Mojo”) or a salt-of-the-earth Marine (in Round House Theatre’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”), gives a solid leading-man performance in Janet Allard and Eleanor Holdridge’s well-played but a mite too slavishly romantic treatment of the avenging hero of pulp Western fiction.
Constellation augments its classical thrust in a thoughtful way with “Zorro,” which continues the company’s laudable efforts at delivering intimate theater with high standards for design. The Spanish-mission-inspired set by A.J. Guban and the costumes for comely damas and elegant caballeros by Kendra Rai are shown off to handsome effect in Nancy Schertler’s light-scape of sunbeams and moonbeams; we might well be on a soundstage, watching as an episode is made of the 1950s “Zorro” black-and-white television series, with Guy Williams as the masked nobleman, Don Diego de la Vega.
“I am one who avenges wrongs!” Gavigan declares in a proximate Spanish accent, in answer to the obvious question of a discombobulated local: “Who are you?” Finished with college, where his course of studies included lots of fencing, Don Diego is back home and enduring the patronizing rebukes of his father, Don Alejandro (a well-used Jim Jorgensen), who harbors few illusions about his fey son.
Which naturally sets the secretly heroic Don Diego on the clandestine path to valor, by assuming a Robin Hood alter ego, vanquishing the prideful, corrupt Capitan Ramon (Andres Talero) and winning the corazon of the fair Lolita (Stephanie LaVardera).
The authors’ affection for the material is obvious — maybe a little too much so. We may not require a wink at every soulful turn of the plot — one needn’t remake “Zorro, the Gay Blade.” But some awareness that a modern audience can see right through the story’s paternalism and schmaltz might give “Zorro” a less antique feel and turn it into a more gleeful kind of romp.
Carlos Juan Gonzalez, playing a wily village elder, and Carlos Saldana, as an inept local constable, come closest to locating an ironic duality in “Zorro”: Both manage to send up their stock characters without making them laughable. Oscar Ceville conveys the requisite severity as the haughty district governor, and LaVardera serenades us prettily as Zorro’s exploits unfold.
Gavigan’s quick changes from Don Diego to Zorro and back again earn appreciative laughs; one wishes the script offered some wittier acknowledgment of the backstage heroics these feats require of him. The configuration of the stage — the audience sits on opposite sides, with the performance occurring in the alley between — puts us close to the action but restricts the actors’ motion in the swordfights. As a result, under Casey Kaleba’s fight direction, the duels Gavigan undertakes with Zorro’s adversaries look tentative and stagey.
It’s still pleasant on this occasion to watch a fine actor get to express his inner illustriousness, as much as it is to see the willingness of a company that usually takes on older works to try something new. As they say in the business of clashing rapiers: Touché.
by Janet Allard and Eleanor Holdridge, directed by Holdridge. Set, A.J. Guban; costumes, Kendra Rai; lighting, Nancy Schertler; music, Mariano Vales; sound, Behzad Habibzai; fight direction, Casey Kaleba. With Vanessa Bradchulis and Michael Kramer. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Feb. 17 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Visit constellationtheatre.org or call 202-204-7741.