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Chicago Tribune

Three Actresses Spark Godinez's 'Electricidad'

By Michael Phillips, Tribune theater critic

July 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

She is a former Miss Puerto Rico. So when Ivonne Coll, playing a barrio grandmother with some mileage on her soul, hikes up her skirt to get at the cigarette case strapped to her thigh, lifts lighter out of her blouse and then, hilariously, waves away the smoke off the first drag as if dealing with a pesky cloud of gnats, the business does not go unappreciated by the Goodman Theatre audience.

Making her Chicago debut, Coll is the best reason to catch "Electricidad," Luis Alfaro's dogged Chicano riff on the Sophocles tragedy "Electra." Coll tackled Federico Garcia Lorca's "Blood Wedding" a few years ago at the La Jolla Playhouse, and out there the earth is still shaking as a result.

The chance to see a formidable actress -- three them, actually -- in this case comes with a lot of on-the-other-hands.

As modern Greek tragedy, "Electricidad" doesn't really work. On the other hand: Alfaro's sharpest exchanges between his barrio versions Electra, Clytemnestra and Orestes could only have come from a good playwright, whose earlier and more distinctive family clashes include "Straight as a Line" and "Bitter Homes and Gardens."

In director Henry Godinez's physically imposing production, the grieving young woman known as Electricidad -- vowing revenge for her mother's murder of her father -- fails to come into her own dramatically. Cecilia Suarez mistakes monotony for intensity, and she's hardly the first do so in the Greek-tragic arena.

On the other hand: The show has three first-rate performances going for it. Coll plays Abuela, an "old school chola" whose stories of her gang-girl days enliven Alfaro's attempt at Greek-tragic adaptation. She is unerring, whether unleashing the big fury, or in the little shrug of the shoulders. The cigarette routine alone qualifies as a master class in audience slaying.

Coll's portrayal is complemented by two Chicago actresses seen recently in the Victory Gardens staging of "Anna in the Tropics": Sandra Marquez, here playing Clemencia, a hard-as-nails ex-chola like her mother; and Charin Alvarez as Ifigenia, the soulful born-again sister of the title character.

In Sophocles, Electra's and Orestes' act of matricide takes place in the Greek island palace of the murdered Agamemnon.

"Electricidad" relocates the action to the American Southwest, in a barrio where the kings and queens are gangbangers spanning three generations. The father we hear of wasted his life on heroin.

Young Orestes (Maximino Arciniega Jr.) has been exiled to Las Vegas, where he works as a busboy with his godfather Nino (Edward Torres).

Orestes writes to his sister and trains for a triumphant return to power back home.

His letters, which detail his plans to return and reassert his macho right to rule the family and the barrio, are intercepted by his mother. She knows she is in for it.

Orestes creeps back into town. At her homemade altar, Electricidad, chained, literally, to the corpse of their father, speaks to his corpse: "He has returned. To avenge you." Orestes does just that and goes mad. Electricidad's victory turns to ashes.

It's not much of a pile of ashes, though.

The play diminishes in heft as it goes.

Actress Suarez spends much of her time in chains underneath an enormous rusted Corona beer sign.

Her performance is tiresomely feral, all wild-eyed glares and snarling.

That Corona sign dominates Riccardo Hernandez's excellent, sand-covered setting, suggesting a desert town where a town can never fully take root.

I wonder if Alfaro could find a way to free himself and the text more, so that the Greek-tragic echoes became more distant and selective.

As is, we get a minute or two of lively Spanglish and nicely rhythmic banter, with dialogue tossing in references to Target, "anytime minutes" and "The Lion King." A lot of the writing is witty, sharp and mournful.

On the other hand: When Orestes suddenly refers to being "the new head of la casa de Atridas," you have to remind yourself why he's leaving Las Vegas, what he's trying to accomplish, and how the narrative does or doesn't parallel the Sophocles original.

Director Godinez, whose staging spearheads the Goodman's second annual Latino Theater Festival, does well by this text. On the other hand: The scene that needs to be the most arresting, Orestes' murder of his mother, comes off awkwardly and ineffectually.

On the other other hand: With the quality of performances ruling this roost -- from Marquez, Alvarez and especially Coll -- there is no on-the-other-hand.

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When: Through July 25

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Tickets: $25-$55 at 312-443-3800

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