Dallas — Teatro Dallas opened The Masks of Sor Juana on an ominous day: April 17th, the 319th anniversary of her death, and on the same one of day Latin America’s modern day literary landmarks, Colombian Gabriel García Márquez also passed away. Sor Juana made her mark in her 44 short years of life while Márquez enjoyed almost twice the time, dying at age 87, possibly supporting the notion that women to this day still have to exert twice the effort in half the time to receive three quarters of the credit.
Mexican playwright and media expert Miguel Sabido’s Pirandellian The Masks of Sor Juana relies upon the didactic formula of a colloquium of experts, which includes Sabido as a character, all gathered to discuss the veracity of The Letter of Monterrey, a piece of writing attributed to Sor Juana, and discovered in Monterrey, Mexico, in 1980.
Of course, they go off the subject and speculate on the more scintillating and debated aspects of the life of this stellar figure, whose writings are deceptively familiar to Latin Americanists, yet some of her personal circumstances are still wrought with biographical lacunae. Did Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz lie about the conditions of her birth, stating that she was the legitimate daughter of Isabel Ramírez and Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, a Spanish soldier never to play a role in her life? Or, was she really a “daughter of the Church,” meaning an illegitimate child? What was the nature of her intimate relationship with the Vicereine, Leornor Carreto, wife of the Marquis de Mancera, the Viceroy, who took a keen interest her work, commissioning and protecting her against misogynist Catholic Church authorities?
The Masks of Sor Juana is a deeply researched and tightly written script offering a prism of interpretations as to some of the more mysterious aspects of the 17th century Mexican nun, who lived at a time when Mexico, as a nation, did not yet exist but as a viceroyal territory called New Spain. Staged in Teatro Dallas’ characteristic functional minimalist style (production design by director Cora Cardona, with Nick Brenthauer designing the stage, Jeff Hurst the lighting), the most is made of this intimate space. In this case Sor Juana’s the costumes (Michael Robinson) take the spotlight. Particularly rich is her dress as a young court maiden.
Structured in a zigzag manner, stage right inhabits the present of the symposium, attended by Professor Aura (Diana Gonzalez), Miguel Sabido (Robert Moreno), Young Female Student ( Rebecca Ramirez), Young Male Student (Orlando Rojas), Dr. Alicia (Nina Bernadina), Kathy Phillips (Madison Snodgrass), Patricio (Omar Padilla), Teodoro (Scott Milligan). Stage right and sometimes center occupies the historical side Sor Juana, played with beauty, dignity and just the right amount of defiance by lovely Olivia de Guzman Emile. All other characters depicted on the historical side were dual roles. For instance, Father Núñez de Miranda, her confessor and persecutor was played with fitting overbearing Church authority by Scott Milligan. Sor Juana’s fiancé was played by Orlando Rojas in multiple roles. Diana Gonzalez infused Sor Juana’s mother, with credible warmth and dignity. Juxtaposed to the more diabolical Diego Ruiz Lozano, the father of two of Doña Isabel’s younger illegitimate daughters by him, Omar Padilla rendered this character duly repugnant.
While the poetry of Sor Juana weaves in and out seamlessly throughout the performance (one would have to know her poetry in order to recognize such moments), this is done particularly efficiently in one of the emotionally strongest scenes in the play, when Sor Juana—behind the bars that represent both her convent life and her metaphoric intellectual imprisonment—defends her mother against her lover, Diego Luis Lozano. Lozano wants Sor Juana to falsely identify her two younger half-sisters as cousins in order to spare them the shame of being associated with their common mother, Doña Isabel.
In this scene Sor Juana speaks from one of her most accessible and famous poems, “Hombres necios” (“Foolish Men,” part of her Redondillas, a simple yet very old Spanish poetic style made up of a stanza of four lines, all eight syllables metrification with a regular abab rhyme). It is the first-known feminist poem of the Americas, and gives a sense of the Baroque style of writing popular in her era. With laser-like precision, it pinpoints the role that men play in seducing women, while blaming them for becoming fallen women, as shown in this excerpt:
Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón,
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis.
Si con ansia sin igual
solicitáis su desdén,
¿por qué queréis que obren bien
si las incitáis al mal?
Combatís su resistencia
y luego con gravedad
decís que fue liviandad
lo que hizo la diligencia.
Translated by Alan S. Trueblood:
Silly, you men-so very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you're alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman's mind.
After you've won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave—
you, that coaxed her into shame.
You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness, proclaim
that feminine frivolity,
not your persistence, is to blame.
Another hot topic addressed in Sabido´s many fables constructed around Sor Juana’s life was the controversy surrounding her intimate relationship with the Countess and Virreina Leonor Carreto. Providing comic relief, the “gringa” member of the symposium, Kathy Phillips, played effectively by a bit over-the-top Madison Snodgrass, dares to suggest that Sor Juana’s relationship with Leonor Carreto may have had lesbian overtones. Mentioned here is the notable Argentinean film, Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All, 1990) directed by feminist director María Luisa Bamberg, which suggests a latent passionate (yet platonic) love between Sor Juana and her protector, Leonor Carreto. Snodgrass draws gasps and laughter upon mentioning that Doña Isabel was a horny, yes, horny woman. (Sor Juana’s mother had six illegitimate children fathered by various men.) Of course, this modern rendition deeply offends the traditionalist romantic version of Sor Juana’s story, as represented on stage by Dr. Alicia (Nina Bernadina).
Under Cardona’s direction, this didactic yet entertaining ensemble piece hits the spot. All of the parts work effectively, satisfying on aesthetic and intellectual grounds. It is informative without being “teachy,” rendering this a wonderful piece to take to schools. With an open ending, The Masks of Sor Juana gives us the last word: the world is full of opinions and as such, we are free to (re)create our own Sor Juana so that she can continue to live, free and unencumbered from censorship and repression. Opening the cell doors of her physical incarceration, even today, Teatro Dallas’ production of Miguel Sabido’s Sor Juana nudges us to open the doors of own imagination and critical thinking.
» Teresa Marrero is Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino/a Theater in the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of North Texas.