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Chicago by John Olson

The Sins of Sor Juana
Goodman Theatre

The Sins of Sor Juana
Dion Mucciacito and Malaya Rivera Drew
Juana Inés de la Cruz, the subject of this 1995 play by Karen Zacarķas, was a 17th century Mexican poet little known to Americans but so revered by her countrymen that her image appears on their 200-peso notes. Her story is fascinating and compelling—that of a brilliant, intellectual woman in a time and place where women were expected to neither study nor even speak of anything of importance. Born in 1648 as the illegitimate child of a Spanish captain, Juana was educated by her maternal grandfather and disguised herself as a boy to attend the university in Mexico City. As news of her intellect and literary talent spread, she was taken into the court of the Viceroy (provincial governor) of New Spain. She was something of a sensation until she left the court to enter a convent, for reasons that are unknown to this day.

Zacarķas speculates on the reasons for Juana's taking of religious vows. Using characters from Juana's poetry and letters, she's created a period romance offering an explanation. In Zacarķas' yarn, the Vicereine—who has taken Juana in as confidante and ward—has arranged a marriage to a noble for the teenaged Juana, so that she may remain a member of the court. The Viceroy, however, is jealous of the Vicereine's attention to Juana and would like to see Juana leave. He concocts a scheme in which his bastard nephew Silvio, who has recently arrived from Spain to defraud the Viceroy, will seduce and deflower Juana, thus making her an unsuitable bride for her intended husband. The handsome Silvio, who not only recognizes but respects and matches her intellect, easily wins her affections, but, naturally, the Viceroy's scheme does not play out entirely as planned. It's all very Dangerous Liaisons and, with director Henry Godinez's romantic and light touch, quite fun and sexy.

As Juana, Malaya Rivera Drew is captivating in a major star sort of way, bringing to mind the sort of smart sexiness and dark good looks of the likes of Penélope Cruz and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Her leading man is played by the equally sexy and commanding Dion Mucciacito, whose anachronistically chiseled body will likely not draw complaints from even the most obsessive history buffs. Comic relief is provided capably by Joe Miñoso as Don Pedro, a portly courtier who would prefer to do the honors of defiling Juana himself; Laura Crotte as Juana's faithful handmaiden Xochitl; and Christina Nieves as a naïve novice. Tony Plana is deliciously villainous as the Viceroy and Amy J. Carle's Vicereine is convincing in both her loving and her vindictive moments. All of this is set in a physical design that is quite beautiful and romantic. Todd Rosenthal's set is a Spanish-influenced courtyard, complemented by Joseph Appelt's gorgeous mood-setting lighting and exotic costumes by Mina Hyun-Ok Hong.

Zacarķas's romance is bookended by scenes that occur in the convent, near the end of Juana's life. She has been forbidden to read or write by the church powers after offending them with a critical analysis of a 40-year-old sermon delivered by a prominent theologian. Rosenthal's set doubles effectively as the convent just as Crotte, Plana and Carle double in roles as nuns and the convent's padre. This setup is dark and rather tragic—as we see Juana's books, paper and quills taken away and destroyed by the other sisters. Juana becomes reclusive and, though she is later allowed some limited freedom to write on approved subjects, vows never to write again.

The juxtaposition of the more factual treatment of the later years in Juana's life fights the romantic story that is placed in between the scenes at the convent. The playwright sets up the memories of Juana's youth as hallucinations introduced by Crotte as both the handmaiden Xochitl and Sor Juana's assistant Sor Filothea. Crotte introduces a magical trunk, which moves itself onto the stage and into which she packs herself and exits. So we have this paella, if you will, of fantasy, idealized memory and reality. It's a mixture of tragedy and period romance joined together by a bit of mystical fantasy. All are done well, but there's not enough of any of each element to make the play fully satisfying on any of those levels.

The lesson of Juana de la Cruz' story—that of a gifted woman whose obvious talents were not fully appreciated in her time and quite likely not fully developed —may be to make us wonder how many accomplishments of which humanity has been deprived over the centuries by its insistence on a second-class status for women. This is an important point that might have been more fully explored. The Sins of Sor Juana could have been as a weighty a drama as A Man for All Seasons, or as wickedly fun as Dangerous Liaisons. The mixture of the two doesn't entirely work as a whole piece, but audiences can still enjoy this production's gorgeous look and the star-quality performance of Ms. Rivera Drew.

The Sins of Sor Juana, the centerpiece of the Goodman's annual Latino Theatre Festival, will play through July 25th in the Goodman's Albert Theater. Tickets are available through the box office at 170 N. Dearborn, by telephone at 312-443-3800 or online at www.GoodmanTheatre.org.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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