Dangerously hot stuff

The title character (Gloria Sanchez) and Orestes (Roy Eric Gonzales) in the Cellar’s production of Electricidad. Photo by Justin Parr.
8pm Fri, 7pm Sat, 2:30pm Sun
Through Jul 7
$20 general; $18 senior, military; $12 student
San Pedro Playhouse Cellar Theatre
800 W. Ashby

The San Pedro Playhouse kicks off this year’s TeatroFest with an invigorating production of Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad, a surprisingly deft Chicano adaptation of Sophocles’s Elektra. Chock-full of cholos, Alfaro’s version transplants the royalty of ancient Argos to a rundown barrio in East L.A. where Agamemnon is less a king than a kingpin. After Agamemnon is bumped off by his wife Clemencia (aka Clytemnestra, and here effectively portrayed by Anna De Luna), their daughter Electricidad takes it upon herself to plot Western Lit’s most famous matricide. All that’s needed is for her muscle-bound brother Orestes to return from exile to the barrio, thus providing the final turn of the screw (and the final twist of mama’s neck).

Like most Greek tragedies, the plot is simple; what elevates the piece is Alfaro’s attention to the poetry and rhythms of contemporary cholo-speak, including generous dollops of street Spanglish. The Cellar’s physical design mirrors this rough-’n’-tumble world of slick hair and slicker insults, starting with Andy Benavides’s and David Vega’s impressive graffiti-splattered set, Crystal Ibarra’s formidable tattoo art, and Sam Villela’s oldies-inflected soundscape. It all looks and feels auténtico, and the ensemble more than meets the challenge of presenting this strange amalgam of a play, in which a Greek chorus — winningly played by Maria A. Ibarra, Alissa Solis, and Dava D. Hernández —
literally shimmies its way past Agamemnon’s rotting corpse.

The lead players provide generally strong turns. Gloria Sanchez, butched-up and suitably surly, plays the title role as a slow burn; she has plenty of fury, but little real power, and so does her best to prevent further desecration of Dad’s carcass while plotting her terrible revenge.

Her sister, Ifigenia (Mara Posada), is a former chola who has escaped to a convent, and who represents the church’s mantra of forgiveness in lieu of vengeance. These sisters’ scenes play like point-counterpoint; Ifigenia might have the Lord on her side, but when’s the last time God showed up in L.A.? The true ‘savior’ turns out to be Orestes, played with earnest gravity by Roy Eric Gonzales; he in turn is coached by the father-substitute Nino (Jorge Sandoval), who helps ensure both Orestes’s safety and, rather more sadly, the boy’s evolution into a killer. Like father-substitute, like son.

Domestic tragedy isn’t usually a knee-slapper, but under Marisela Barrera’s inventive direction, Electricidad lands every joke in the piece — and then some. At times, in fact, the production veers perilously close to camp, and it isn’t always clear whether Barrera aims for satire or echt tragedy. Marisa Varela’s Abuela garners some of the best comic business in the piece, with a hairdo that falls someplace between a beehive and the Addams Family; designer John McBurney provides a similarly startling wardrobe. The low humor of the piece bleeds (ah, just the right word) into other moments as well: The Greek chorus’s addiction to Big Red Soda (with a tasty side of Cheetos, natch) prompted the biggest laugh of the evening.

The problem is that while Sanchez and Posada underplay their roles, allowing the tragedy to take center stage, De Luna and Varela take their performances over-the-top. This allows them to milk the satire, but not always the pathos. When Varela finally tones it down a bit, the rewards are immediate. The most moving scene of the play isn’t, strangely, the final murder of Clemencia, but the quiet recognition by the eldest generation of cholos that they are unable to recapture the moment when being a cholo — or, for that matter, just being human — didn’t involve an endless spiral of torture and homicide. One suspects, given Nino’s penchant for chopping off fingers, that this was a time that never was: only a trick of the memory, set to a bluesy, Latin score.

At two intermission-less hours, Electricidad could slip a shiv into some of the musical interludes, which contribute to the mood but not much to the plot. And one misses the literal electricity called for in the script (sure, it’s hokey, but who doesn’t love the sound of a transformer going ZAP?). Otherwise, blessed with superior acting and attention to detail, this enjoyable production crackles with electricidad.