Aug 25, 2017

Old School Throwback

Zilah Mendoza in Electricidad at the Mark Taper Forum, 2005. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
Luis Alfaro has been retrofitting Greek tragedy to L.A.'s Latinx gang culture for many years now, and by many accounts his Oedipus El Rey is among his best. After runs all over the country, including at Oregon Shakes, it's coming to New York's Public Theater in October. I haven't seen it, but I remember being mightily impressed by his take on Electra, a highlight of Gordon Davidson's last season at the Mark Taper Forum. To celebrate Oedipus's New York arrival, and the whole run Luis has had with this approach, here's my whole review of Electricidad from the L.A. Downtown News, April 11, 2005.

Sophocles Meets Switchblades
By Rob Kendt

Who says kids got no respect? In Luis Alfaro's gritty, witty Electricidad, one young woman's dogged attachment to tradition is a key element of the tragedy. In adapting Sophocles' severe, probing version of Electra to contemporary Los Angeles, Alfaro has persuasively conjured a fateful moral mythos as unforgiving in its way as the Greeks': the self-made switchblade chivalry of the cholo.

It's a world in which "old school" and veterano are ultimate compliments, where oldies radio and obsessively detailed Chevys are the height of fashion, where everyone speaks in terms of "rules" that determine and measure their actions.

At the play's start, there has been a huge disturbance in the cholo force: Clemencia (Bertila Damas) has flouted the code by killing her husband Agamemnón, the barrio's former "king," and put a hit on their son Orestes (Justin Huen). While Clemencia struts on heels and seethes on the phone in her cutaway frame house, her hair piled in a half-beehive helmet, her daughter Electricidad (Zilah Mendoza) holds a defiant vigil over Agamemnón's body on the front lawn.

No one who stops by this makeshift grave site—her sister Ifigenia (Elisa Bocanegra), a reformed chola, her saucy Abuela (Alma Martinez), or a Greek chorus of broom-toting busybodies in housecoats (Denise Blasor, Catalina Maynard and Wilma Bonet)—can dissuade the wracked Electricidad from this show of grief. Meanwhile brother Orestes, away in Vegas, trains for la vida loca with battle-wizened Nino (Winston J. Rocha).

Even if we know how this must end, Alfaro's free-ranging Spanglish text has many surprises and jolts up its Pendleton sleeve. Ifigenia, with her tight, wet curls and Goth eye shadow, looks like she could cause some serious damage—until she opens her puffy windbreaker, and her heart, to reveal that she has joined a convent and is trying to learn to forgive.

For all her withering witchiness, Clemencia explains her motives for murder in bracingly feminist terms that almost seem to crack Electricidad's resistance.

Perhaps most startling of all, Electricidad herself gets quieter and calmer the closer she gets to the play's inevitable confrontation. In an extraordinary performance of breathtaking, almost operatic range, Mendoza goes from roiling machisma to broken, even apologetic quiescence as she comes to believe she's only doing what must be done.

All the performances in director Lisa Peterson's bold, clear-eyed production have similarly gratifying richness, from Damas' cool, luxuriant bitterness to Martinez's crass ebullience, from Huen's palpable vulnerability to Rocha's crusty chill. Apart from Mendoza, who rivets our attention even in repose, Bocanegra—with her hoarse voice and versatile Greek mask of a face—delivers the show's breakout turn.

She also gets some of the show's best reality-check one-liners. "Your loyalty to Papa has always been deep and kinda creepy," she tells Electricidad, and later dismisses one of her sister's sweeping invocations with the unanswerable put-down, "That's poetic but stupid."

Alfaro gives his chorus plenty of other snappy contemporary in-jokes. "In the beginning, before Mayor Bradley and Gloria Molina..." goes one iteration of the play's pre-history. But alongside liberal references to Tupac, Oprah, Boyle Heights hero Father Greg Boyle and the gory Mexican rag Alarma!, this chorus of neighbors also delivers some fearsome perspective: "It's a city with no center, no heart," they conclude about Los Angeles. "It's all bordertowns. It's the wild, wild west!"

Not only the performances but everything about Peterson's staging - Rachel Hauck's dusty, exposed-seam set, costume designer Christopher Acebo's perfectly observed threads, Geoff Korf's dusky lighting, Paul James Prendergast's crackling sound design - root the play's primal tragedy in contemporary reality without reducing either to caricature.

While it's a scandal that it took so long for Taper resident artist Alfaro to get a show on the mainstage—he's an essential voice long overdue for a wider audience - it is clear why Gordon Davidson selected it for his final season at his theater. He's long been cited for his commitment to political theater, but Davidson's most important legacy to his adopted city of Los Angeles is the series of plays he's produced about the tragic contradictions and dizzying juxtapositions of the city itself, from Zoot Suit to Twilight: Los Angeles to Chavez Ravine to Living Out. Electricidad is a stunning consummation of this often overlooked vein of Taper gold—a tradition we can unambiguously embrace.

Electricidad is at the Mark Taper Forum through May 15.

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