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The Arts
March 8-14, 2006

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Photograph by Dave Lepori
Hard-Core Chorus: Adelina Anthony as Electricidad reworks Greek tragedy at Teatro Visión.

Charged Drama

San Jose's Teatro Visión gives Sophocles' 'Electra' a Chicano update

By Marianne Messina

'CAN WE start with a game?" asks director Mark Valdez. "Zip, zap, zop!" He forms a circle with the three women of the Chicano/Greek chorus who are there to rehearse Luis Alfaro's Electricidad. Based on Sophocles' Greek tragedy Electra, the play's choral commentary comes from these three vecinas, or neighbors, of the title character.

As the game proceeds, each of the four shoots back a "zip," "zap" or "zop" as one of the others randomly points to them. And Valdez joins in, standing at the mark like a kid playing air hockey, eye-on-puck. The zip-zap-zops grow faster, no one knowing when they'll be signaled to "zap" or "zip," and a certain synergy builds among the group.

After the exercise, the women transfer that synergy to their lines, Valdez stamping out the beat with his feet, each voice unique, each inflection different from the last. Suddenly, the "chorus" aspect of "Greek chorus" is revivified in a rhythmic unity of voicings all interdependent and as musical as a Bach invention put together by bell ringers:

    "How many neighbors"
    "keep a body in the front yard"
    "as if he was a car"
    "without wheels"
    "on cinder blocks."

As they sweep the floor, the vecinas' brooms accent the beat. "We finish each other's sentences, but at the same time we have our own personality," says Laura Bustamante, playing Cuca. Bustamante sees her character as the one who injects "You bring it on yourself" into a pity party.

Bustamante, Elise Marina Alvarado and Rose Mendoza (as la vecina Connie) work out where each truncated line will be directed. In the process, the vecinas address each other, the audience, themselves and God in a musical "maelstrom" (Valdez's word for the drama). "We are treating the audience like a jury," explains Alvarado, who's playing la vecina Carmen. "What do you think about what's going on here: Is this right or is this wrong? So we call the attention of the audience to check in on the values."

Electricidad's father, a cholo kingpin, was killed by her mother, who now inherits the gangland "dynasty." As the wronged daughter, it falls to Electricidad to set things right: gang code equals Greek virtue. Character names adapted from the Greek play underscore this equation: Electricidad for Electra, Clemencia for Clytemnestra.

"In part because it borrows from that Greek structure," Valdez suggests, "there's also a nobility to this play ... a dignity, a pride, a code, a family, a poetry." Valdez singles out some of the play's questions—what is family, what is loyalty?—and says, "Those are all the sparks that run throughout the play; that's the electricity." He is clearly charged by the issues, but the schoolyard game boy he seemed in rehearsal has sobered into an intense philosopher. "Electricidad is right; Clemencia is right; yet in this world they butt up, and what's interesting is what's in the middle of these butting heads, of these two forces. That right there, that's tragedy: people caught in the middle."

The play has drawn attention for Alfaro's odd humor—a body, in the front yard? "Within these really dark moments, when do you throw in that laugh, when do you pull back?" Valdez asks. "It's all interbalances. That's the challenge, but what an amazing challenge."

Alvarado and Valdez believe that Chicano drama integrates pain and laughter with ease. For Alvarado, the chorus of vecinas is comparable to the Mexican dramatic archetype La Muerte. "They're watching, and they're commenting. ... They kind of satirize, but then they also have some compassion."

"There's like the day of the dead celebrations," Valdez adds, "and you laugh at death."

Electricidad, a Teatro Visión production, plays Thursday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and/or 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through April 2 at the Mexican Heritage Plaza Theater, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $15-$18. (408.272.9926)

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