In Sophocles’ “Electra,” the tormented heroine is obsessed with murdering her mother, Clytemnestra, and her mother’s lover Aegisthus, to punish them for cold-bloodedly killing her beloved father. Luis Alfaro (“Bitter Homes and Gardens”) has updated the story from ancient Greece to a modern Los Angeles barrio, eliminated the lover and framed his tragedy against the continuing violence of gang culture and warfare. Although his adaptation is repetitive and uneven, it has a contemporary vitality and the sheer personal involvement of the author comes through in several seamy, operatically directed scenes.
Electra is now Electricidad (Zilah Mendoza), who sits in front of her house, guarding the body of her father and vowing vengeance on her mother Clemencia (Bertila Damas). Three neighbors act as a periodic Greek chorus (Catalina Maynard, Denise Blasor and Wilma Bonet), filling in background details and flinging comedic asides to lighten the stormy mood. Entertaining as this trio is, its chief function is to issue warnings, and the play in general allows too many portentous something-terrible-is-about-to-happen speeches that diminish suspense rather than heighten it.
Onlookers beg Electricidad not to go through with her plan, but their emotional pleas are unsatisfyingly passive; none of them take any action. Even the targeted mother appears to be reclining on her red couch, awaiting her bloody fate rather than forming a counterplot to fend it off.
Mendoza rips through her role as the demented, hate-driven Electricidad with complete abandon. She makes no bid for sympathy while portraying a raw reverence for her father’s memory and the gang life he embodied. Facile suggestions about incest from her mother (“I knew you wanted him … you were in love with him”) feel false as presented.
As her mother, Damas cuts a brutal figure in black capris, black fishnet top with fringe and high wedge heels. A more complex personality than her daughter, she’s a woman who frankly admits that she never meant to be a mother, a victim of a wife-beating husband and a parent who tries, despite everything, to force her children to say they love her. At times Clemencia is too many people, and the writing makes it difficult to get a fix on exactly who she is, but Damas’ sexual toughness lends electricity to the mother-daughter confrontations.
Alfaro’s most fully rounded character is Ifigenia (Elisa Bocanegra), Electricidad’s sister. Her portrayal is outstanding, spotlighting Lisa Peterson’s direction and Alfaro’s writing at their best. Ifigenia’s witticisms — unlike much of the play’s gratuitous and distracting comic dialogue — spring from character. When she talks about joining a convent, she comments, “forgiveness is a virtue … I just learned that, but I don’t know what the hell it means,” her confused need to find solutions is genuine.
Most of the play’s tragedy-programmed protagonists are schematically conceived to serve plot function, but Bocanegra fills her role with quirky, contradictory traits and a warmth that connects viscerally with the viewer. Another plus is Alma Martinez’s juicy turn as Electricidad’s paternal grandmother, who lost a husband and two children to gang wars, once kept knives and joints inside her beehive hairdo and now wants to prevent her granddaughter from matricide.
What rings less convincingly is the crucial character of Electricidad’s brother Orestes (Justin Huen). He’s boyishly determined to prove himself through fighting and getting tattooed, yet he’s also soft, sensitive and deeply reluctant to do his sister’s bidding. The script doesn’t make his final actions credible. Despite the dictates of the classic Sophocles storyline, his role in Alfaro’s version isn’t sufficiently prepared for, and there’s a lack of satisfaction when Electricidad — after such intense buildup — doesn’t directly carry out her plan.
Rachel Hauck’s set — a bare-bones wooden frame of a house that enables us to see inside and observe both mother and daughter — helps to keep plot points in focus. Christopher Acebo’s costumes, from the grandmother’s tight skirt and big turquoise earrings to Electricidad’s open, hanging belt and baggy gray pants, accurately reflect the people wearing them. Physical fights staged by Steven Rankin contribute to the incendiary portrait of people fragmenting under pressure.