La Vida Loca in Ancient Greek
Photos by Craig SchwartzPlaywright Luis Alfaros Electricidad (at the Mark Taper Forum) joins a list of ancient Greek-play updates that comment on local circumstances from Jean Anouilhs indignant Antigone (set in Nazi-occupied France) to Steven Berkoffs flippant Greek (plunking Oedipus or Eddie into East London). Alfaro sends Electra to East L.A. in an adaptation remarkable for the way it re-jiggers the story with Spanglish rhythms, cholo postures, and seemingly frivolous references to anytime minutes and Food 4 Less. Dont be fooled. Alfaro is a deceptively despondent jokester who dramatizes the humor, futility and agony of domestic life through characters who gently, sometimes rudely, mock each other with a topping of Mexican comedy. The play seems trite for a while, like a sitcom straining for significance. Then the topping melts, revealing how tragic, revenge-driven cycles of bloodletting match brutal Greek codes of war. Electra is the tormented young woman who, in two ancient Greek plays named Electra (by Sophocles and Euripides), conspires with her exiled brother, Orestes, to kill their mother, Clytemnestra, because 1) Clytemnestra plotted the murder of their father, warrior-king Agamemnon, and 2) Clytemnestra then married her lover, Aegisthus. Why would a wife treat her noble husband so shabbily? Because Agamemnon slit the throat of his and Clytemnestras dutiful daughter, Iphigenia: He sacrificed her to the gods in exchange for fair weather on a military expedition. Back home, this was not news that Clytemnestra took lightly. Lets just say it put a dent in their marriage, which led to a dent in Agamemnons skull, which led to a dent in Clytemnestras, which is the plot of Electra action and reaction, cause and effect, eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. Pagan Greek justice was inter-generational and without mercy, like gang warfare. Just scan The Iliad. In Alfaros retelling of Electra, Ifigenia (Elisa Bocanegra) actually shows up. She doesnt exist in either Sophocles or Euripides versions because shes dead, having been sacrificed by her father. In East L.A., however, her dads an old-school cholo who never hurt her, never sacrificed her, never sailed to Troy or anywhere else, except maybe down the boulevard. Ifigenia arrives from a convent in Fresno where, after some episodes in jail, shes found her Savior. Shes saddened and bemused to discover her sister Electricidad (Zilah Mendoza) filthy from sleeping in the front yard and keening over their dad Agamemnons rotting corpse, which Electricidad has enshrined in a grave with an altar of stones, votive candles and faded pictures. She hijacked the body from Forest Lawn, and poor Clytemnestra no, make that Clemencia (Bertila Damas) smokes and paces in the casa, her speed-dial set to Century 21 in hopes of selling the place. But you cant unload a home with a corpse in the yard and a loca protecting it like a pit bull. Alfaro jettisons Clytemnestas second hubby, Aegisthus, whos featured in both Greek versions. No more men for Clemencia. Agamemnon raped her in the back of a car when she was 13, impregnating and humiliating her through life with brazen infidelities. Shes confident she has a better chance of a joining society without cholos enslaving her through abuse and neglect. She killed Agamemnon herself, after a drunken fiesta. Didnt even break a nail, one of the chorus reports. As Electricidad vows to avenge her fathers murder, Ifigenia appeals to her sister for Christian mercy. She might as well be arguing to change the color of the sky. In her own lead-footed way, Ifigenia introduces an entirely foreign element of forgiveness into an otherwise pagan universe. Shes like the Pope pleading for world peace through a doctrine she can barely articulate in a land hell-bent on vengeance. With this hopeless yet hopeful stroke, Alfaro redefines Electras theological essence, from being a play about the mechanics of destiny to a play about the capacity to control ones fury, and thereby change destiny. Thats brilliant. Occasionally, Alfaros jokes are gratingly glib. Forgiveness is a virtue, Ifigenia proclaims, with the tag: I just learned that one. I dont know what the hell it means. Nonsense. Shes been talking about forgiveness throughout the play. She better know what it means, or why are we all sitting here? In a simple, elegant symbol, by planting the old dead cholo center stage (departing from Sophocles and Euripides, though Aeschylus used that device in Mourning Women), Alfaro literally moves the earth around the story. As Electricidad and Ifigenia argue whether or not to off mom, you cant help but ask, what exactly is decomposing here? The chorus of vecinas (Denise Blasor, Catalina Maynard and Wilma Bonet) answers with flowing lyricism: Before Mayor Bradley/And Gloria Molia/Before the great wars of the 70s and 80s/Before the Chicano moratorium/And the death of Ruben Salazar/There was the cholo/And the cholo was no myth/He wasnt even a god/No, he was made by man/The product of racismo/And neglectful Mamas/The cholo was just a homeboy/With his zoot suit/And his switchblade/Pushed out by la cultura/Like a coyote, he hid in the shadows/In the coolness of midnights.
Director Lisa Peterson elicits spectacular performances from her ensemble, particularly Mendoza, whose Electricidad betrays cascading levels of rage while sustaining her dignity. Bocanegras Ifigenia is a marvel of confused, bruised pride a hawk-eyed, brooding tomboy with matted black hair, a gang-chic vinyl jacket over Catholic nuns garb (costumes by Christopher Acebo) aching for the capacity to do good, to be good. Also fine are Justin Huen as Orestes Electricidads sensitive brother, exiled in Las Vegas, training for his triumphant return with the confidence of a slightly bewildered child; and Winston J. Rocha, playing Orestes crusty old gato trainer/tattoo artist. And though Peterson has finessed the balance between Alfaros onslaught of jokes and the agony that underlies them, Ifigenias return embodying the central conflict of ideas feels undistinguished, like just another vecina arriving in the generalized wash of Geoff Korfs lights and Rachel Haucks expansive set. Ifigenia warrants a more defined entrance to match the scale of her opposition to Electricidad. Sophocles has Electras other sister, Chrysothemis, chide Electra on the petty grounds of decorum: Why, sister, hast thou come forth once more to declaim thus at the public doors? Why wilt thou not learn with any lapse of time to desist from vain indulgence of idle wrath? Alfaros Ifigenia is more succinct: Get over yourself you stupid bitch. Jesus loves you. Any character with a line like that deserves to be properly introduced. ELECTRICIDAD | By LUIS ALFARO | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through May 15 | (213) 628-2772
Get the Weekly Newsletter