Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The real Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a poet in New Spain, what is now Mexico, from 1648-1695. As an illegitimate child she was cast in the lowest rungs of society, though she grew up on the estate owned by her maternal grandfather. She was self-taught, with a prodigious grasp of language and philosophy. In 1664 her mother sent her to live in Mexico City, where her beauty and gift for poetry brought her favor in the court of the Viceroy, where she had protection and support for her blossoming artistry as a writer, becoming a particular favorite of the Vicereine. After declining several offers of marriage, in 1667 she became a nun. At the convent she was allowed to continue to pursue philosophy and writing until she ran afoul of the Bishop of Puebla in 1690. He ordered her to give up her library, abandon writing, and devote herself to prayer and domestic activities befitting a woman.
Zacarías keeps the outline of Sor Juana's life, adding a story of intrigue within the Viceroy's court based on his jealousy of his wife's devotion to the beautiful young poetess, a plot to make her appear morally debased, and the subversion of the plot into genuine love. The play also develops the events around Sor Juana's betrayal by the priest who had been her protector and the depths to which she suffered in her determination to give up everything else before she would give up her art. Importantly, she understood her art to be not only the act of creating beautifully crafted poems, but of being faithful to the ideals and beliefs that illuminated those poems.
Ten Thousand Things' distinctive presentation style, played in the center of a square lined by two rows of seats, with vibrant performances but minimal scenery and all the lights on (I attended a performance in the gymnasium of an adult learning center with glaring fluorescents on shining down full bore) ,is ideally suited to The Sins of Sor Juana. The play has the sensibility of a fable spun around the center, which is Sor Juana's faithnot in God, although she does not reject Godbut in her purpose. The other characters represent the trials Sor Juana endures and the bittersweet rewards she attains, some at the Viceroy's court, others at the convent. One character, Xochitl, is with Juana throughout, an Aztec woman who at times appears as Juana's lady's maid, but at other times as her conscience, rooted in truths that pre-date the arrival of the Spanish and their preemption of native traditions and values.
The production is embellished with beautiful background music written and performed on guitar by Robert Everest. Everest, who is skilled in a wide array of traditional music from around the world, brings an authentic feel to the classical Hispanic motifs, conveying emotions in harmony with the arc of the narrative. Listening to Everest's performance would be richly rewarding even if there were no play to go with it. Together, the play and music together are a riveting combination.
The shifts in time and place between the court and the convent are made clear throughout, both by Zacarías' fluent narrative and Lorca's crisp and elegant staging. Two cloth panels on opposite sides of the playing area are flipped over, on one side depicting the stone and arched portals of the convent, drawn in black and white, the other side the lush view from the court's terrace, done in color. Simple set pieces do the rest.
Sarah Bahr's costumes beautifully help the characters come to life, with exquisite work on both the Vicereine's elaborate gown and Xochitl's native dress. Abbee Warmboe, the busiest designer of props in town, does some extra special work here with fine details that lift the production up yet another notch.
The acting company could not have been better cast. Thallis Santesteban is a charismatic Sor Juana, radiating her zest for life, for beauty and for truth, strong in her defiance of those who would smother the flame of her passion, exuberant at the possibility of love that is pure and ennobling. Ryan Colbert pivots easily between earnest romantic and devious rogue, never failing to be charming. Sun Mee Chomet is equally dazzling in two showy roles, as the possessive, manipulative Vicereine and as the Sor Sara, a nun whose greatest pleasure is in bringing down Sor Juana.
As the Aztec woman Xochitl, George Keller evokes truth based on deep roots and ancient wisdom, while she brings a stoic insistence on the straight, narrow path as Sor Filothea, the mother superior. Jason Rojas brings a comic edge to the bumbling, as well as underhanded, Pedro. Father Nuñez and the Viceroy are both played by Pedro Bayón, the former with a kind of fallen grace, the latter with the dread of a powerful man whose power is being usurped by a woman. Ava Saunders completes the cast, playing Sor Maria, a young novice drawn to Sor Juana's independence and free-thinking. Saunders is a recent arrival on Twin Cities stages and makes a winning impression here.
The Sins of Sor Juana completes Ten Thousand Things' 2018-2019 season. With a well-chosen balance between the comic romp Scapin, a highly complex musical Into the Woods, and the compelling drama of The Sins of Sor Juana, this company has proven their continued capacity to offer a wide range of theatrical fare, made as accessible as can be imagined, while maintaining impeccable standards of quality. Artistic Director Lorca has proven her mettle, honoring the invaluable legacy of Ten Thousand Things' founding artistic director Michelle Hemsley, while continuing to push the company onto new ground. One can only look forward to more great theater, with all the lights on.
As for the current production of The Sins of Sor Juana, it stands out as one of the very best among a strong spring season on Twin Cities stages.
The Sins of Sor Juana, through June 9, 2019, for Ten Thousand Things Theater Company at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $40.00 opening night, May 17; all other performances - $30.00, Pay what you can, $10.00 minimum, for those under 30 with ID at the door. Performances at the Open Book and free tickets for all remaining community performances are sold out. For tickets call 612-203-9502 or go to www.tenthousandthings.org.
Playwright: Karen Zacarías; Director: Marcela Lorca; Music and Sound: Robert Everest; Costumes: Sarah Bahr; Sets: Cate Whittemore; Props: Abbe Warmboe; Production Manager: Nancy Waldoch; Assistant Director: Nora Montañez Patterson; Production Intern: Vivian Cook.
Cast: Pedro Bayón (Padre Nuñez/Viceroy), Sun Mee Chomet (Sor Sara/Vicereine), Ryan Colbert (Silvio), George Keller (Xochitl/Sor Filothea), Jason Rojas (Pedro), Thallis Santesteban (Sor Juana), Ava Saunders (Sor Maria, a novice).