Cecilia Suarez in Electricidad(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
Cecilia Suarez in Electricidad
(Photo © Michael Brosilow)
Few classics have spawned more offspring than Euripides' tragedy Electra, which has been interpreted by Voltaire, Richard Strauss, and Eugene O'Neill, among others. Now the great tale of revenge and matricide is given a Latino slant in Electricidad by Luis Alfaro, the literary polymath (poet, playwright, short story writer, solo performer) perhaps best known for his plays Straight as a Line and Bitter Homes and Gardens.

The original tale is set after the Trojan War. Electra and Orestes are the grown children of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra. When Clytemnestra and her lover murder Agamemnon and seize the throne, Electra persuades the long-exiled but now returned Orestes to slaughter their mother and her lover in revenge. All are members of the most cursed family in literary history, the House of Atreus, every one of whom sleeps with a relative or murders one or both. In Alfaro's hands, the ancient Greek kingdom becomes a Southern California barrio where gang leaders are the ruling royalty. Electra becomes Electricidad, Clytemnestra becomes Clemencia but has no lover: Ama (mother) Clemencia has killed Apa (father) because his drug addiction has sapped his power as a cholo (gang) kingpin. Clemencia intends to run the barrio herself.

Alfaro diminishes the importance of Orestes vis-à-vis Electricidad. Orestes has plenty of stage time in this 85-minute play but he's no longer a brother returning from exile, horrified by what he finds and bent on vengeance; instead, he's the young cholo crown prince intent on seizing la corona for himself. Alfaro also has created some characters not found in Euripides at all, most importantly Abuela (grandmother), confidante of Electricidad and enemy of daughter-in-law Clemenica. These changes make Electricidad even more powerfully focused on its women than Electra. Without the distraction of a lover and with Orestes arriving late on the scene (although we see him earlier in exile), the adaptation is a female mano y mano y mano between mother, daughter, and grandmama with commentary provided by an all-female chorus of neighbors.

Besides tagging onto a ripping-good story, Alfaro opens a window onto the look, symbols, language, and attitudes of cholo/chola culture. Orestes sports enormous Holy Family tattoos on his chest and back. The women are inked as well -- even Abuela, who bears three tattooed crosses for her husband and sons killed in gang wars. The cholo culture is one of bravado and swagger often expressed as sarcastic, mocking humor; such taunts are built into Alfaro's lyrical, strongly rhythmic, yet simple language, which liberally blends English and Spanish. The speech of the characters wouldt seem stereotypical if written by a less authentic voice. We've heard such inflections before in plays by Luis Valdez, Eduardo Machado, José Rivera, and others -- even from Cheech and Chong -- and they are part of the aural music of Electricidad.

Unfortunately, Alfaro's hip language and sardonic humor undercut the play's catharsis and the tension that leads up to it. The author calls Electricidad a tragedy but it often seems closer to satire, not of Greek drama but of the cholo persona. For instance, much fun is had at the expense of Electricidad's sister Ifigenia (Iphigenia), newly released from prison and maybe -- or maybe not -- Born Again. Future productions will tell how the piece plays to Latino and non-Latino audiences.

The current production at the Goodman Theatre (through July 25) serves the play very well. Riccardo Hernandez's arresting scenic design features a steeply raked wedge of sand rising up to a giant Corona Beer sign at the rear of the stage. A small platform down left, dominated by an overstuffed, red plush sofa and a single Corinthian column, serves as Clemencia's home. Choreographed by Wilfredo Rivera, the gossipy, half-masked chorus of neighbors literally sweeps across the stage, each carrying a broom. Director Henry Godinez keeps the blocking simple, favoring strong tableaux over patterns of movement. He has tapped Teatro Vista and Teatro Luna -- two local Latino theater troupes -- for most of his cast and he elicits aggressive performances from all, especially Cecilia Suarez (Electricidad), Sandra Marquez (Clemencia), and Ivonne Coll (Abuela). As Orestes, Maximino Arciniega, Jr. proves himself a young actor to watch.