Electra shines brightly in barrio version

"Electricidad," now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, succeeds as a compelling drama with humor mixed in with the pathos.

Playwright Luis Alfaro has taken upon himself the daunting task of transposing the dark Greek tale of “Electra” to the Los Angeles barrio. Unlike other “updates’ such as the recent “As You Like It,” the new play, “Electricidad,” now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, succeeds as a compelling drama with humor mixed in with the pathos.

In the play by Sophocles, Electra is devastated by the death of her father, Agamemnon, at the hands of her mother and her mother’s lover. Here, Electricidad is mourning the death her father, a gangland boss, and blames her mother for his murder. She steals his body and places it in the front yard where it is surrounded by a shrine of votive candles, beer cans and other relics. Distraught and disheveled, she refuses to leave, sleeping on the ground around the “grave.”

Although this is stark Greek tragedy, Alfaro manages to introduce engaging barrio characters whose introduction of current problems gives added meaning to the drama. Is it possible to escape from the barrio with its gangs and gangsters? Ironically, the mother is the one who is fighting the claustrophobia of the neighborhood and wishes to show that women can succeed outside the macho society. It is the daughter who clings to the past and its stifling traditions.

The mood is captured by a trio of broom-wielding women acting as a “Greek chorus.” With humor and sadness they bemoan the tragic events that are unfolding. Nothing can be done to remove Electricidad from her vigil and her determination to exact revenge. Her mother explains that her “beloved papa” was a bully and that with him gone, they can both move on to a better life. Her grandmother and her sister also make an effort to pull her away. As in the Greek version, only her brother, Orestes, gives in to her implacable compulsion for revenge.

The clever set, as devised by Rachel Hauck, shows the bare bones of a house behind the yard. The costumes are also just right, as designed by Christopher Acebo. They stress the sexiness of the older women and the gang style attire of the heroine. Much credit must go to the seldom-cited casting director, in this case Amy Lieberman. The actors are all superb.

Zilah Mendoza makes the demented Electricidad believable in a difficult role. Marvelous performances are turned in by Alma Martinez as the grandmother and Elisa Bocanegra as the sister. These characters are unique and the actresses play them for tears and laughs. The brassy mother is Bertila Damas, who manages to be sympathetic in spite of her characterization as a murderer.

Justin Huen is perfect as Orestes and Winston J. Rocha is a street smart godfather. The women of the chorus, “Las Vecinos,” are played with gusto by Denise Blasor, Catalina Maynard and Wilma Bonet.

Lisa Peterson, the director, makes everything flow beautifully. But the star of the evening must be Luis Alfaro, who has taken a classic Greek drama and made it, not only relevant for our time, but thoroughly entertaining.