Monday, July 26, 2010

Goodman's 'Sor Juana' Victimized by Its Sins

Theater Review

The Sins of Sor Juana
A play by Karen Zacarias
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Run Ended

The best thing I could say about the Goodman Theatre's new--but now completed--production of Karen Zacarias' The Sins of Sor Juana is that it wasn't awful.

Given the terrible review it received in the Chicago Tribune, a friend's lackluster take on it and my disappointment with much of the Goodman's 2009-10 season, I didn't have great expectations going in, and at least for the first act, Sor Juana exceeded them.

If nothing else, the show--and the accompanying program materials--educated me about Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 16th century Mexican poet who is revered in her homeland to the point of being on Mexico's equivalent of a $10 bill, but was heretofore unknown to me and presumably to many north of the border.

Seemingly, at least based on Wikipedia, there were three central parts of the real Sor Juana's life: 1) teenage years spent within a royal court, where she began to demonstrate illustrious writing skills and intellectualism frowned upon for a woman of her time; 2) her decision to join a convent for the educational freedom it provided, followed by 30+ years in which she freely wrote about woman's pursuit of liberty, knowledge, education and self-sovereignty; and 3) a few years near the end of her life in 1695 during which her self-expression was quashed for its controversial content and tone.

Zacarias opened her play--originally written in 1999 but largely reworked for its presentation as the central work in Goodman's Latino Theater Festival--by focusing on #3, with Sor Juana's "voice" being silenced by the church, much to her chagrin. This worked rather well in introducing the talented writer's battle with her oppressors. Almost entirely skipping #2 and only briefly alluding to her prior ability to write freely within the convent, the play then focuses primarily--at least in terms of stage time--on #1, the period Sor Juana (played by Malaya Rivera Drew) spent in a Viceroy's court.

Wikipedia doesn't delve deep into what really happened to prompt Sor Juana to join the convent, but I presume that Zacarias largely fictionalized a tale in which the Viceroy manipulates Sor Juana into falling for a suitor under false pretenses and losing face after already agreeing to marry a nobleman. Whatever the realities, this whole scenario played out like a silly opera plot, devoid of music. It did nothing to elevate the biography of a seemingly rightly revered woman and felt more like a bad soap opera than a substantive docu-drama.

By the time the action returned to Sor Juana's time in the convent, challenged by--and somewhat challenging--authority, I found myself no longer much caring about what started as a worthwhile conceit. Even so, I was disappointed that Zacarias, director Henry Godinez and an inconsistent devotion to historical accuracy obliged Sor Juana to submit to her silencing. It's a shame that such a fertile mind had to go meekly into the night and a sin that her back story was turned into a romantic farce.

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