Bandido

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Photo by Richard Green

By Philip Pearce

LUIS VALDEZ, founder of El Teatro Campesino and pioneer of Chicano theatre here and abroad, casts a sardonic but sympathetic eye on a popular local desperado in the Western Stage’s new main stage offering Bandido.

Our hero is a native of Monterey’s early years of statehood named Tiburcio Vásquez. The play covers armed robberies, gun battles, escape tactics, extensive love affairs and his final execution in San Jose. With a gun-toting lead character reputedly the inspiration for the fictional Latino swordsman Zorro, Luis Valdez’ script proves yet again that there’s nothing so heartwarming as a quick-action, flashing-eyed, smart-talking bad guy.

To the title role, Andres Ortiz brings sharp line delivery and an energetic swagger, not to mention an impressive baritone singing voice. That’s important, since playwright Valdez has chosen to set much of the action not in factual history but as exaggerated sequences in a 19th century stage melodrama. These high action episodes are strung together with period song and dance numbers that comment wryly on the plot and characters.

The theatrical format is an inspired choice for a central figure who was himself such a lifelong public performer. Even in his San Jose jail cell, Vásquez is shown selling autographed photos to adoring female fans and welcoming the efforts of an impresario named Samuel P. Gillette (a smoothly pompous Nicholas Pasculli) to produce an exaggerated stage version of a pop-idol bandit’s life and exploits.

Director Lorenzo Aragon has assembled an appealing company of actors who can sing, dance and put over a joke. There are no “supporting” roles here. It’s an enterprise that requires a lot of the cast to tackle two or three parts and they all do it admirably.

There’s Christine McGovern strutting her stuff like a Latina Mae West in a brilliant succession of shady lady roles. Chelsea Palmer, Briana Sandoval and Daisy Baraja join her in some raunchy farce moments as employees of a profitable and lively Monterey bordello.

Elizabeth Murillo is a fetching and spirited spitfire named Rita Madrid, who is gutsy enough to know when to submit and when to reject the romantic advances of the lady-killer Vásquez.

Javi Harnly and DeAnna Diaz join Ortiz’s Vásquez in a steamy domestic love triangle, and Carl Twisselman, Fred Harro, Dennis Hungridge and Kate Hickey handle the Gabby Hayes geezer department, male and female, Anglo and Mexican. Almost everybody functions at one time or another as a member of a singing/dancing posse determined to track down the elusive Vásquez.

Bandido continues through October 1.