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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

By Laura Hitchcock

Although Luis Alfaro has set his version of Sophocles' Greek tragedy Electra " right now" in a Chicano barrio where cholo gangs are the warriors of record, Alfaro's vivid torturous version can no more be labeled strictly Latino than Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet can be labeled English or Italian. He's a universal playwright, as evidenced by his use here of Greek roots, Latino soil and timeless psychological themes.

Alfaro employs contemporary Latino idiom, displays a gift for poetry and a wicked humor that's not overused and writes character brilliantly. The three neighbor women who comprise his Greek chorus could have come off waitress duty at the Astro Coffee Shop. "We raised her for that mother!" they say of Electricidad (Trici) and her mother Clemencia.

This mother's house, though typical of East L.A., has a front porch whose posts give it the vague air of a Greek temple. In the front yard lies the corpse of El Cholo, father of Trici, Orestes and Ifigenia, murdered by his wife, their mother Clemencia. The corpse, shrouded in a blanket, straw hat and shoes, is surrounded by a circle of votive candles. Whenever the stage goes dark, that ring of light reminds us where the heart of the play lies.

El Cholo fights for his people but Clemencia swears his violence is directed at her. "He beat me, it was his only way to control us,""she screams at Trici. "I want to turn each of his bruises into a dollar."" An elegant menacing figure in black Capri pants, espadrilles, black form-fitting shirt and long black hair, she stalks through the house like a panther. Trici, a chola in jeans, tank top and one of her father's old flannel shirts, lies prone by his corpse as often as possible. Whether she doesn't believe her mother or doesn't want to, the pain of her loss clamps her rigidly into a course of vengeance.

Clemencia's feminist claims that she killed El Cholo on behalf of the women in the family and community make her Alfaro's most innovative character. "I am the Mother!" she declares, equating herself with the Earth Goddess Alfaro describes early in the play.

Alfaro has created another quirky character in Ifigenia (Ifi), a stocky figure bewilderingly drawn to religion. She wears a contemporary nun's outfit and quotes by rote Biblical passages about turning the other cheek. Then she and Trici look at each other blankly, trying to puzzle out this alien concept.

Orestes, whom Clemencia calls her sensitive child, submits to being tattooed by his tutor Nino (also a figure in Sophocles' play). He's been exiled to Las Vegas but returns, calling out to Trici, "We can't live in exile. That's why they call us home boys.""Trici pounds into him that it's up to him to become a made man by avenging their father. She paints it as an honor killing. "Find your courage! Find your rage! Find your darkness!" she intones in a ritual chant.

Director Lisa Peterson has matched every beat of Alfaro's structure which builds, without intermission, through the 90-minute play. She catches the weight, violence and sorrow of the community, salting it with Alfaro's spicy humor in just the right proportions.

Zilah Mendoza, in the title role, has a deep strong voice that resonates with passion and a desperate sincerity that rivets the audience to her appalling choices. Elisa Bocanegra as her sister Ifi holds the stage without moving a muscle. Bertila Damas is the darkness Trici urges Orestes to find, robed in a crime and anger she can never shake, an example of a crime already committed that doesn't deter Trici from, in this case, wanting to be just like Mother.

Orestes is played with vivid vitality by Justin Huen and Winston J. Rocha's dry comic delivery wrings every ounce of juice out of Nino. Abuela, played by Alma Martinez, is largely written as a comic character but Martinez finds her heft. And the homegirls or whatever, La Carmen, La Connie and La Cuca are given flamboyant distinctive characterizations by Denise Blasor, Catalina Maynard and Wilma Bonet, respectively. Rachel Hauck's set design and Geoff Korf's shadowy lighting are both shrouded in suggestions, bringing this version into today, if never into the light.

Playwright: Luis Alfaro, based on Sophocles' Electra
Director: Lisa Peterson
Cast: Denise Blasor (La Carmen), Catalina Maynad (La Connie), Wilma Bonet (La Cuca), Zilah Mendoza (Electricidad), Alma Martinez (Abuela), Elisa Bocanegra (Ifigenia), Bertila Damas (Clemencia), Justin Huen (Orestes), Winston J. Rocha (Nino).
Set Design: Rachel Hauck
Lighting Design: Geoff Korf
Costume Design: Christopher Acebo
Music and Sound Design: Paul James Prendergast
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: March 27-May 15, 2005
Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Phone: (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on April 6.

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