Theater Review: ‘Sins of Sor Juana’ is Hollowed History

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CHICAGO – Lauded as the first great poet of Latin America, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz served as both an artistic and philosophical trailblazer in the most consequential of orders. A self-instructed scholar of Baroque thought, Sor Juana piloted a course of unprecedented intellect as well as feminist ideology during her brief years. What has rightfully garnered the scribe a nonpareil reverence was her audacity to posit such work in a time of a most restrictive piety. Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 2.0/5.0
Play Rating: 2.0/5.0

Barreling forth under the 17th Century Counter Reformation and the lambastic eye of the Inquisition, Sor Juana acquitted herself before academic salons and scrawled suggestive poetry during a period when women were primarily confined to whatever literary zest was to be found in scripture.

Malaya Rivera Drew in “Sins of Sor Juana”” target=
Malaya Rivera Drew in “Sins of Sor Juana”
Photo credit: Liz Lauren

Hers is undoubtedly a life after which narrators of biographical fiction can often only hunger. Rife with dramatic abuttals, decisive mystery, and an over-arching underdog trope, Sor Juana almost seems to have left her successors the fruit of further storytelling on, well, a silver parchment.

Which is why the Goodman Theatre’s deficiently wrought production of “The Sins of Sor Juana”, a fictionalized semi-chronicle of the artist’s young adult years, is baffling in its propensity to underserve. Composed by Karen Zacarias and directed by a usual stalwart Henry Godinez, the production, through a lengthy series of conceptual missteps, manages to undermine the very figure it intends to esteem. Which, considering the remarkable life of the pillar at hand, is no easy infelicity.

Zacarias first introduces her subject at the Order of St. Jérôme, where Sor Juana (played by the insistent Malay Rivera Drew) resided as an Hieronymite postulant during her later years. As a theatrical avenue to unshroud the real laureate’s unusual decision to retreat after a life of artistic prolificacy, Zacarias establishes a “Taming of the Shrew”-esque motivator as the play’s central dramatic point. The Viceroy Sebastian de Toledo (Tony Plana) fears losing his wife both intellectually and emotionally to the inspiriting Sor Juana, and thus hires a reprobate thief (Dion Mucciacito) to debase her. If you do not yet know whether these two ostensibly disparate societal émigrés can find a common attraction, you may want to brush up on your Julia Roberts film collection.

”Sins of Sor Juana” at the Goodman Theatre” target=
“Sins of Sor Juana” at the Goodman Theatre
Photo credit: Liz Lauren

The too often cloddish and pedantic language of the script, although a noticeable barrier for many of the fresh-faced actors, cannot be charged with the sole derailment of the production. It is rather this preference toward derivative rom-com (here light on both rom and com) contrivances that ultimately paints Sor Juana’s campaign as a hollow one. It is a peculiar, and daresay impudent, imagining. One scene depicting the lovers’ initial meeting requires Sor Juana to confess to have discovered a newfound passion in artistic meditation. Bizarre, considering this is the same woman who in real life unpromptedly penned “Respuesta a Sor Filotea”, a public treatise deriding the Catholic Church for its suppressive treatment of women.

It is essential for contemporary audiences to experience tales of such veritable icons in sincerity and truth. Having been born a misbegotten infant and later evolving into one of Mexico’s most celebrated polymath, Sor Juana’s tale should leave little room for egregious fiction. Instead of illustrating nuanced attendants in the viceregal court, Zacarias positions her titular heroine against buffoonish caricatures. The Viceroy practically twirls his mustache during the initial scheming, prowling the stage with a scepter that looks only to be missing a talking serpent. His loutish and metrosexual henchman Don Pedro (Joe Minoso) is resigned to crude sex gags.

To its credit, however, the production is partially upheld by the earnestness of a dedicated supporting cast and design team. Minoso and Plana often wade through their mulish material to find moments of honesty in their antagonism. Amy J. Carle is in affecting form here as the Vicereine, dispatching an impressive emotional agility in her scenes with Drew. Todd Rosenthal’s opulently period basilica serves as a superb aesthetic backdrop.

StarMore theater reviews from critic Alissa Norby.
StarMore theater reviews from our other critics.

But surely a poet of Sor Juana’s international stature warrants more from her theatrical conjurers. It is nearly impossible to argue that the young prodigy regarded the quill’s power lightly even in the most arid of times.

The poet’s parting gift to her world was in fact a penitential that, scratched in blood, renounced her use of the written word. With such an innate connection to the dramatic, it is a misfortune that our modern day artists could not see that the truth is not only stranger than fiction, but in Sor Juana’s case, a great deal more interesting.

“Sins of Sor Juana” runs through July 25, 2010 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn in Chicago.. To purchase tickets or for more information please visit here. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar. staff writer Alissa Norby

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© 2010 Alissa Norby,

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