Transpose Shakespeare's power-hungry Scottish general into East L.A. gang territory, and you have MacBato, a high school dropout, coming up fast through the ranks as one of the neighborhood's Locos. Rubén Amavizca's adaptation of Macbeth has a few clever surprises: There is only one weird sister, and she is a modern-day bag lady (Caroline Calvillo) who, instead of toiling over a cauldron, is digging through a trash can muttering to herself when Mac and Miko (or Macbeth and Banquo) come upon her for the first time. True to her prediction, Mac (Armando Valdes) becomes not Thane of Cawdor but jefe, or head, of Cawdor Street, where he is in charge of patrolling.
The play has a talkie start, but Amavizca directs some strong performances. Valdes steps into the role and is impressive as the conflicted man, obsessed with his own destiny. His wife, Lady (Minerva Garcia), pushes him to kill the jefe of the whole gang, his Uncle Ray. His resistance and torment over deciding to do the deed are some of the best moments in the play. Not long after that, he becomes a hardened killer. Richard Azurdia also gives a strong performance as Miko, playing him as a man who chooses his words and actions very carefully, as subdued but intense.
Born in Mexico, Amavizca wrote the play in Spanish, and it was later translated into English. He has taken liberties with Shakespeare's text, using some key speeches and lines, but, for the most part, changing the text to fit the way the youths would actually speak. The play is performed in Spanish on alternating weekends.
Between scene changes, audio news reports attributing the story's killings to warring local gangs are accompanied by slide projections of local graffiti and neighborhood spots. These segments are less successful than the main body of the play; although they do add a context for the events, they seem less focused and could use refining. The voiceover is not always audible. When the ghost's voice predicts that Mac cannot be killed by "any man born of woman," the crucial line is unfortunately lost in a poor sound projection.
Despite these minor technical setbacks, MacBato is thought provoking and a credible transposition of the grizzly Scottish play to modern-day Los Angeles, which has the effect of making it that much more immediate and horrifying.
"MacBato," presented by Grupo de Teatro Sinergia at the Frida Kahlo Theater at the Unity Arts Center, 2332 W. Fourth St., L.A. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 6 p.m., Sept. 14-Nov. 5. Performances in Spanish: Sept. 28-Oct 1, Oct. 12-15, Oct. 26-29. Performances in English: Oct. 5-8, Oct. 19-22, Nov. 2-5. $9-12. (213) 382-8133.