That Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz was a poet, a genius and a nun, who lived in Mexico in the 17th century (1650-1694), is well-known. When I visited Mexico in 2009, I felt her impact at the co-ed University of the Cloister of Sor Juana in the Historic Center of Mexico City. Her memorized verses are recited by school children today.
Perhaps less well-known is that Sor Juana, the New World’s first feminist, was also a playwright. It’s a miracle that she expressed herself so openly and survived the Inquisition as long as she did before she was silenced in a misogynist, anti-feminist culture, the very target of her biting satire.
The GALA Hispanic Theatre has a hit in its ultra-romantic, surprisingly theatrical and campy staging of House of Desires, written by Sor Juana in 1683, thanks to director Hugo Medrano’s imaginative direction and an exuberant, brilliant acting ensemble. We are transported to the warm, earth-toned, burnt-orange interior of a Mexican hacienda in the 1940s. A gorgeous, welcoming set of Doric-columned arches, designed by Luciana Stecconi, emulates a cloister, except for its five wood-paneled doors, fit for a classical Roman farce. Here, we are in a melodramatic Mexican countryside, reminiscent of the ranchera-musical films, comedia ranchera, during the Mexican Golden Age of Cinema. The latter is evocatively revived by piped-in musical bridges of Mariachi music. Also, two live Mariachi guitarists, in a mid-play concert, arranged by one of the characters, perform one of Sor Juana’s songs about love and suffering. Overall, this staging is unique. House of Desires is enjoyable entertainment, well worth a must-go-see.
But first, allow me to digress. Of paramount importance is the honor code that echoes in today’s honor killings carried out in Muslim countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. To fully appreciate House of Desires, we must be aware that it was an absolute no-no for an un-chaperoned woman to be alone with a man, who isn’t her husband or a relative. If found with a man, the assumption is that the woman is immoral. She must either marry him or be killed, join a convent, or watch the man be murdered by her closest male relative. The stakes are high.
HOUSE OF DESIRES
Feb 5 – March 1
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $38 – $42
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202 234 7174
In comes Doña Leonor, whose opening monologue reveals Sor Juana’s early years as a prodigy. Her dedication to learning, she tells Ana, has made her a celebrity, but now her passion is for a man. And actress Alina Collins Maldonado, who is endowed with an impressive emotional range, sensitively projects a portrait of a young woman, brimming with passionate sensuality for Carlos, (GALA newcomer, Erick Sotomayor.)
While the lovers were eloping, they were attacked in the street, and Leonor had to take refuge in Ana’s house. A gasp from the audience comes when the connection is made: Carlos is the stranger, the object of Ana’s eye. Both women love the same man. But here’s another barrier. Leonor has been forcefully kidnapped by Ana’s sly brother, Pedro, (Mauricio Pita, another GALA newcomer.)
Sor Juana has spiced up her comedy with witty remarks about real people and human behavior, including her own personal experience. An example: because Carlos is hard to get, the unattainable man, Ana desires him all the more. “Carlos is more gallant, but if that were not so,/that he belongs to another makes him irresistible!” This is Sor Juana’s satiric dart aimed at the stereotypic passive woman– the ideal. Ana is hardly docile and pure. She’s a manipulative liar, playful as a kitten. But although not totally evil, Ana does ruthless things, anything to block the love affair between Leonor and Carlos. She imprisons both lovers behind locked doors. Thereafter, the conflict gets tangled. Thanks to well-executed program notes, a detailed plot map really helps.
But so does the animated, heart-and-soul character acting from this inspired ensemble that brings this piece to life with high-octane enthusiasm.
As Carlos, Sotomayor shines as he mock-heroically struts and preens like a charismatic rooster. He checks out his tousled hair by gazing at his reflection in the handle of his pistol. He walks slightly bow-legged like a cowboy. He’s the revered 1940’s macho matinee idol, decked out in wide-brimmed charro sombrero, and sleek, maroon-red charro suit, detailed with gold braiding. The costuming is tastefully glitzy to underscore the Western-Mexico theme.
Luz Nicolás plays Ana’s maid, Celia, as gutsy and more complex than the stock servant. Celia, who is sassy and meddlesome, has hidden Don Juan, a conniving fop, (Oscar Ceville,) in Ana’s bedroom. Celia will do anything to win over the suitor her mistress desires. As a result, there is a hilarious mistaken identity scene that takes place in Ana’s darkened bedroom as the characters, who can’t see faces, but hear each other’s voices, effectively pantomime stumbling and groping around in the dark. Kudos to Christopher Annas-Lee for the well-timed dimming-of-light plan that builds to the shocked moment when Celia enters with a candle. The lights come up to full and the characters discover each other. A terrifying experience for some because of the honor code.
Celia helps explain what is really going on, the developing chaos, in clarifying asides. Here’s one about the servants, echoing the appearance versus reality theme. “They’re all as bad as each other,/blaming each other one minute,/saving each other the next.” It’s as if Celia is speaking about everyone in the play and the entire human condition. To her credit for inventivenerss, Nicolás, an amazingly resourceful actress, makes Celia much more than a commentator. Celia can be a femme fatale, leaning against one of the upstage pillars, like an exotic flower waiting for an insect, imitative of a 1940’s Mexican movie star, Dolores Del Rio.
Sor Juana’s poetic monologues are loaded with classical allusions and rhythmic parallelisms that could grow cumbersome and stilted. Yet Medrano’s skillful directing, and stage business give the text fluidity. Carefully crafted choreography keeps the actors light-footed, the pace quick. Sweeping stage crosses and larger-than-life gestures keep the flow dynamic. The bombastic male characters, like Roberto Colmenares’ Rodrigo paired with Hector Días’ Hernando, for example, capture the older generation’s hypocrisy and cover-ups of reality.
The reverse striptease, enacted by Carlos Castillo as Castaño, is wonderfully absurd, a peak highpoint that reinforces the ideal beauty versus reality theme. Castillo as the gracioso clown, and servant, is outrageously funny as he dons a head scarf, a brassiere and tight dress, cloak and gloves, taken from Leonor’s packed elopement bag. But Castaño’s disguise backfires. Before he can escape the house, egotistical Pedro is totally taken in and believes that it is Leonor who is under the cape-and-hood. And all hell breaks loose in an even wilder comic love scene. Appearances deceive. Love is blind. Passion is so blinding, nothing can diminish it.
On the Elizabethan stage in the 1600s, Shakespeare’s women, such as Rosalind in As You Like It, or Viola in Twelfth Night, dressed as men for safety against predators. But here, Castaño, as Carlos’ accomplice, dresses as a woman for protection.
All action builds to a tumultuous and noisy climactic ending. A Fibber McGee’s closet is thrown in as business (sound design by Adam W. Johnson) for Castaño. All the knots untangle and the true lovers find each other and are paired off. Roberto Colmenares as Don Rodrigo, is wonderful as Leonor’s hypocritical father, who doesn’t care who ends up with whom, as long as appearances of honor are kept up. “As long as Leonor is married/and my honour is not at risk,/nothing else matters.”
We have to remember Sor Juana wrote in a cloister for royalty at court; not as Shakespeare did for the general public at the Globe Theatre. House of Desires was performed in 1683 at the court of the Viceroy Marquis de Mancera and his wife. The classical allusions remind us that the piece was written to be read and studied, as well as seen. The dialogue surtitles move at such a rapid clip, it is wise to know the classical allusions. Esau was the scorned twin son after he sold his birthright to Jacob, the founder of Israel in the Old Testament. Garatuza was a real life trickster who posed as a priest. Tarquin the Proud, who lived in the 5th century B.C., was the last of Etruscan tyrants ruling Rome before the Republic. The legend of Melisendra, held captive by Moorish King Marsilio and rescued by her Catholic knight, originates from a puppet show in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
What is achieved here is a major accomplishment, showing us the gold mine of rich culture to be found south of the border. It’s almost a shame that the pacing is so quick that we miss some of the embedded, rich allusions. This is a play for reading and study as well as for theatrical performance. Don’t miss it.
In Spanish with English sur-titles.
House of Desires/Los Empeños de una casa by Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz . Translated by Catherine Boyle . Directed by Hugo Medrano . Produced by the GALA HispanicTheatre Tivoli Square .
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.