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The Sins of Sor Juana
In Mexico her face appears on their equivalent of the ten dollar bill. In her time she was known as the "Phoenix of Mexico" and the "10th Muse." Her poetry is valued all the more because, like Frida Kahlo, she died early, at 46 of cholera in the convent which she had mysteriously entered at the age of 19. According to Mexican-American playwright Karen Zacarias, "The Sins of Sor Juana" consisted of belonging to a future that was too foreign to the 17th century in which she died. This, of course, is no sin at all but it's a definite drawback.
Henry Godinez' earnest staging, a Goodman Theatre premiere, is faithful to the play— -which only makes you wish the play had been more faithful to its subject. Assuming that art can imitate art, Zacarias imagines even more about Sor Juana than she could have invented about herself.
We learn about her bastard birth and her attempt to disguise herself as a boy in order to be taken seriously as a scholar. Flashbacks from Juana's last years in the Hieronymite convent of Santa Paula in Mexico City accurately reflect her dazzling debut at the court of the viceroy of New Spain, where Juana attracted the patronage of the vicereine. Her erudition, passion for knowledge and sparkling verse impressed all, spreading her fame from the New World to the old. But, just as she was blooming in life and art, she entered the convent, never to leave. There in 1690, a reactionary time when priests did not relish rebellion, Sor Juana was caught up in the most dramatic crisis of her life. She dared to write a treatise criticizing a male man of Christ. Betrayed by her bishop, Juana was upbraided, had her books confiscated and was forbidden to write. Possibly fearing for her life and deeming herself "Juana, the worst of all," she silenced herself—until an epidemic in 1693 finished the job.
Clearly, Sor Juana is a ripe choice for a feminist martyr. Zacaria predictably plays that up, even giving her an "I am woman—hear me roar!" outcry that seems to have been sent by a time machine back some three hundred years. She also adds ingredients of magic realism, which suggest the life of the imagination that for many years Juana kept alive despite the strictures of a religious community.
These futuristic or folkloric alterations in Juana's admittedly sparse life story are no worse than stylistic intrusions. However intrusive, they don't weaken our trust in the storytelling. The big problem is the whole-cloth invention of an explanation for why Juana entered the convent. Here is the supposed explanation: The viceroy, eager to reclaim his newly free-thinking wife from Juana's progressive clutches, hires another bastard, a Spanish thief named Silvio, to seduce and disgrace her so that she cannot marry the vicereine's awful choice of a noble husband. In the process another wholly invented character, the foppish Don Pedro, envies Silvio's success in winning Juana's heart. Don Pedro does his worst to destroy him, even as Silvio discovers that he loves Juana and wants to run off with her to create new identities in a new world. But, Zacarias means to show, the prejudices of the old world inevitably doom them both.
This, combined with the heavy-handed caricatures of the court that makes Juana's superiority too cut-and-dried to be complex, constitutes a big mistake. Juana can stand out on her own and, it can be argued, the implication that her retreat to the convent was not her choice but the result of a sexist plot by chauvinistic men, is insulting to her memory and stature. Better to shroud her reason for retreating to religion in mystery than to reduce it to a Mexican Romeo and Juliet, with star-crossed lovers cursed to be imported from the 21st century for dramatic convenience.
A once and future feminist heroine, Malaya Rivera Drew makes a captivatingly lovely Juana and suffers every bit as anachronistically as necessary. Better known as the father on Ugly Betty,” Tony Plana fulminates fully as the misogynistic and reactionary viceroy, in contrast to Amy Carle's operatic depiction of the would-be liberated vicereine. Dion Muciacito is sufficiently macho as Silvio, a traitor to his time who must be poetically punished. Laurie Crotte, as a Mayan figure who counsel Juana in both submission and self-reliance, adds some lumpy comic relief in a play that badly needs to turn tragic and not just polemic.
Finally, the beautiful set by Todd Rosenthal, depicting the convent's receding cloisters, is only marred by a ridiculous inflated beach ball that's supposed to depict the moon. The Moon's a Balloon” should only be the name of David Niven's autobiography.
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