Among the dozens of apocryphal anecdotes that have attached themselves to the late, great Mexican comic actor Mario Moreno, one choice example involves how Moreno acquired his famous stage name, Cantinflas. As recounted in “eforeCantinflas!,” Herbert Siguenza’s sketchily conceived but rousingly performed theatrical tribute that opened Wednesday at the Cerritos Center, the idea came from a heckler who, thinking Moreno’s nonsensical prattle proved he was drunk onstage, yelled out a Mexican slang term centering on the word “cantina,” or saloon.
Like the bulk of Cantinflas’ hefty comedic output, that taunt loses something in the translation from Spanish to English. But in either language it still packs a punch when delivered by a performer of Siguenza’s robust comic abilities.
Best known as one-third of the L.A.-based comic troupe Culture Clash -- he’s the bald-headed one with perpetual five o’clock shadow -- Siguenza here does double duty as author and star of this warmly admiring, bilingual memory play about the man known as the Mexican Charlie Chaplin. At its best, the show allows him to channel Cantinflas’ multiple comic personas in a way that recalls Robin Williams’ manically morphing genie in the Disney movie “Aladdin.” And though it doesn’t offer much psychological insight into the private life of its title character, “eforeCantinflas!” succeeds in delivering the pop-culture icon in all his rumpled, unassuming glory.
Actually, Cantinflas’ spot-on incarnation of the Mexican pelado, the beleaguered Everyman who relies on his wits, blithe spirits and verbal dexterity to keep one step ahead of life’s misfortunes, owed debts not only to Chaplin’s Little Tramp but to Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel and perhaps even Cervantes’ Sancho Panza. Like Don Quixote’s faithful sidekick, Cantinflas’ characters were realists who knew that the key to survival is learning how to play along with the general lunacy. The quintessential Cantinflas hero asserted himself by slyly undercutting authority figures -- bosses, politicians, society, God -- through Dada-esque puns, verbal somersaults, sideways leaps in logic and willful misinterpretations of other people’s benighted rhetoric.
Even when engaged in pure slapstick maneuvers, Siguenza has always been a remarkably graceful performer, able to shift characterizations with the flip of a wig or the flick of a hat. Here he deftly switches from vignette to vignette, as the elderly Cantinflas, comfortably ensconced in his Mexico City home, retraces the high points of his career to a worshipful foreign reporter.
What follows is essentially a staged anthology of Cantinflas’ greatest hits -- re-creations of classic vaudeville routines and excerpts from some of the movies that made him a Mexican folk hero and, for a brief period, a transnational star. Sporting the artist’s signature look -- red bandana, a piece of rope holding up his pants, a small hat mashed on his head like a soggy burrito -- Siguenza finds fresh life in jokes that are more than a half-century old, pouring himself into the material with an energy that is not only infectious but genuinely stirring in its enthusiasm.
Aided by Max Ferra’s direction, which plays up the self-conscious theatricality of the show’s flashback structure, and the versatile supporting cast of Pablo Brancho, Ann Candler-Harlen, Alejandro Cardenas and the single-name performer known as VIVIS, “eforeCantinflas!” gives the exhilarating sense of watching a vintage carpa revue on opening night. Whether playing a drunk, a shiftless lover or a turbaned know-it-all spouting absurdities, Siguenza inhabits this material as comfortably as a mollusk inside a well-whorled shell.
Given his obvious empathy for the character, it’s puzzling that he didn’t attempt to dramatize one or two of the more personal episodes from this extraordinary life, maybe as vaudeville sketches, the way Bob Fosse did in “All That Jazz.” Late in the evening, Cantinflas steps into the spotlight to take sad note of his beloved wife’s death, but the gesture comes too little and too late to let us glimpse the wounded soul beneath the payaso’s pasted-on smile.
“Opportunist or philanthropist? Humble artist or shrewd business man?” the reporter asks in a stylized sequence in which she impersonates a charging bull to Cantinflas’ wily matador.
“eforeCantinflas!” never really comes close to resolving those, and many other, issues. But on strictly comic matters, this show’s exclamation points far outweigh its question marks.
Where: Cerritos Center, Sierra Room Theater, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos
When: Tonight and Saturday, 7:30; Sunday, 2 p.m.
Contact: (800) 300-4345 or (562) 916-8500
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
Pablo Brancho...Multiple roles
Alejandro Cardenas...Multiple roles
Written by Herbert Siguenza. Direction and dramaturgy by Max Ferra.