Viva Vasquez!

Consider all the coke that went up Gary Busey's nose, and it's still possible to claim there are more good lines in Luis Valdez's Bandido!, the entertaining play about the life and legend of notorious 19th-century California bandit Tiburcio Vasquez: “Orgasm is a lot like death, except instead of coming, you go.” “Some men achieve English; others have it thrust upon them.”

Unfortunately, even the great one-liners don't exonerate Valdez of his crime: he tries to tackle too much with Bandido! In terms of form, his play is both an homage and send-up of traditional melodrama and a play within a play within a play and a musical comedy and a farce and a tragedy. But at its very compelling heart is a quite earnest—and effective—attempt by the playwright and director (the force behind Zoot Suit) to rehabilitate Vasquez's historical legacy and to condemn the thievery of the state of California by hypocritical, racist Yankees and to make a point about how public image and private life lose their distinction in the crucible of Southern California myth-making. The jumbling of forms and themes makes for an entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying trip. There's too much to see, and eventually, it all blends together.

But it is an educational journey, shedding much-needed light on both Vasquez and that period of California history between the Gold Rush and the Modern Age—that is, the beginning of the motion-picture industry. At a time when the legal emissaries of the conquering Yankees were swindling Mexican nationals out of their holdings, Vasquez provided vicarious revenge. In Bandido!, he's a dashing gallant, equal parts Zorro, Robin Hood and Che Guevara, stealing horses and robbing railroad-company payrolls from the Bay Area to the Los Angeles basin and hiding out in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. But according to Valdez, he never killed a man, something for which he was executed in 1874, on the occasion of California's last public hanging.

The play's framing device finds Vasquez writing his own story, a melodrama, in a San Jose jail cell as he awaits trial and predestined execution. Although Vasquez came too early for Hollywood, Valdez anticipates the star-making power of the studios by postulating that Vasquez was Southern California's first media-created celebrity. Captured in a cabin overlooking what is today the Sunset Strip and first held in Los Angeles, Vasquez was visited by a legion of smitten women and made good money selling post cards of himself at 50 cents a pop. A play based on his life, The Capture of Vasquez,did brisk business in Los Angeles.

In Bandido!, Vasquez has heard of this melodrama, is repulsed by its cartoon-like qualities, and demands that its producer look over the script he is writing about his own life. No surprise, Vasquez's melodrama finds the notorious bandit far more heroic and honest. He's also much more than a petty thief; he's actively trying to foment revolution, to divide California into a Yankee northern half and a southern half run by Californios.

Politics and legend aside, Bandido! is also a very fun show, particularly in its goofier musical moments. (Daniel Valdez wrote the tunes to his brother's lyrics.) The opening number, “Posse Comitatus,” is a comic romp that seems straight out of Blazing Saddles, while “Hi Ho the Ohio” is a razor-sharp satire on the inherent hypocrisy of Manifest Destiny and the American pioneers.

The songs are less effective as they get more serious, particularly “Mi California,” a number in which Vasquez and his troop pine over the loss of their homeland. Valdez's politics are beyond reproach, but the song's ponderousness is unforgivable.

While Kinan Valdez has the gusto and bravado the lead character needs, more vulnerability and less type-A intensity would make for a truly sympathetic hero. The most enjoyable supporting performances include Lawrence Hecht's Samuel P. Gillette, a slimy theater producer with a heart that isn't 24-carat gold but still glimmers when necessary; Lakin Valdez's Chavez, the pathologically faithful sidekick; and Marcos Martinez's Gonzalez, who contributes a hilarious send-up of the stereotypical Hollywood Mexican bandit—something underscored by a quick, funny sampling of the theme song to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at a well-placed juncture.

In the program notes, writer/director Valdez writes that Bandido! “is a play that, like its protagonist, had to do time.” It began as a workshop production in 1982 and was staged at the Mark Taper Forum in 1994. This is its third incarnation, and while there's enough here now to make for a very good play, one hopes that Valdez revisits it one more time. With sharper focus, it could join his earlier Zoot Suitas a genuine Southern California theater classic, something Golden State residents of all skin shades and backgrounds could—and should—appreciate.

Bandido! at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, (619) 544-1000; www.sandiego Tues., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 N 7 p.m. Through Oct. 17. $21-$34.

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