Nicole Hanson, Intern
Amongst the excitement and angst of the election, American Players Theatre (APT) provided the perfect distraction with Karen Zacarías’ play, “The Sins of Sor Juana”. Directed by Jake Penner and starring an all-LatinX cast, this Zoom-mediated play reading transcends the limitations of video conference calling. The chemistry emitted from the cast is palpable as they brilliantly utilize elements of comedy, romance, and tragedy to convey the plot of the story through its style of magical realism.
Starring Melisa Pereyra as the bold and intelligent, Juana Inés de la Cruz, and Ronald Román-Meléndez as Silvio, Juana’s suave romantic interest, the story follows a somewhat hypothetical and pieced-together biography of one of the first American feminists, Juana Inés de la Cruz. As a woman in the late 17th century in the recently colonized Mexíco, Juana had to fight both tradition and religious pressure in order to pursue her life’s passion of knowledge and poetry. Meanwhile, in Silvio’s quest to distract and dishonor the unattainable Juana for a reward from the Viceroy, he falls in love with her. Throughout these endeavors, Silvio, the Viceroy, and the Viceroy’s cousin, Pedro, have hilarious and clever dialogue. The jokes peppered thoughtfully throughout this play are sure to have gotten big laughs in a theater.
APT lays out the plot, saying, “Juana Inés de la Cruz is a brilliant and controversial poet making waves throughout the Mexican Viceroy’s court – particularly with his wife – in the 1600s by writing about love, feminism, religion and other topics not deemed ‘appropriate’ for women of the time. The Vicereine is so taken with Juana that she arranges an engagement to keep her in court, while the Viceroy plots to ruin her reputation. Told by Juana from the perspective of two different worlds – the court and the convent – it’s the story of her battle for independence and intellectual freedom; weighty and funny and utterly relevant.”
The characters are rich and complex, and their conversations often serve to deepen the plot by providing pieces of backstories. Sometimes, elements of documented historical events, such as Juana disguising herself as a man to sneak into the University of Mexico, are mentioned. When this is discussed, Juana states that she felt more like herself when she was disguised, which in this context, I believe she is referring to the feeling of being seen as a respected equal as opposed to a woman who should not read or write. Stories like these add context and help the audience to better understand the character’s history and personality. This concept helps the audience gain a better grasp on the tragedy that Juana endures at the end of this story. However, with this tragedy brings a new beginning, and the play ultimately ends with a powerful message of hope and potential for future progress.
The cast does very well with the medium they are given. Costume changes and some narration aid the audience with changes of character, time, and location. Dramatic facial and vocal expressions help to make up for the lack of performative body language and movement that would have been available on stage. However, some kind of background props could have been useful in making the narrative clearer. It was helpful when they read the stage directions, but they do not do this nearly enough, as some actions are unclear without them.
Another issue with this biopic is that it relies on knowledge of historical figures, such as the character, Xóchitl, a historical Aztec figure akin to Cleopatra. Based on the narrative, the audience can intuit what these characters are and are not, but many of the emotional plays, like the dramatic poems that Juana comes up with, are historical and you should probably know about them beforehand if you want them to be as impactful as the writer likely intended.
Overall, this play is an inspired piece about the seemingly timeless tale of a woman fighting to be seen and treated as an equal to her male counterparts. By applying this to the specific topics of reading, writing, and poetry, this message is able to be conveyed in a more clear and impactful manner. This concept is both relatable and thought-provoking, as this issue is still all too relevant today.
This play reminds us of the impact of the written and spoken word, as well as its importance that leads us to support the arts and the vessels, such as APT, that convey it so well.