Sunday, September 21, 2014

Best of Festival, 2013 Oregon Shakes: The Tenth Muse

We have arrived at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2014, and I haven't even published a review for my vote for Best of Festival 2013. It's time to gather up my notes, my re-reading, my re-living of this play from the last year and post the review that took a year to write.

The Best of Festival among the eleven shows mounted by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2013 (yep, we saw 'em all, some more than once) was a new play commissioned by and developed at OSF by Tanya Saracho: The Tenth Muse, directed by Laurie Woolery.

L-R: K.T. Vogt, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Vivia Font, Vilma
Silva, and Sofia Jean Gomez in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's
2013 production of The Tenth Muse. Photo: Jenny Graham.
This play is a classical coming of age, hero's journey on eternal themes of growing up, finding your voice, and making choices about what matters most to you. In this respect it belongs to a long tradition of theater. It augments that tradition by taking women as its characters, art by women as its subject, and a convent in inquisition Mexico in the early 1700s as its setting. It only reinforces the play's themes about what—and who—"count" and may be heard that its silent muse is Sor Juana InĂ©s de la Cruz, a giant of Mexican culture that few (at least non-Latino) North Americans have heard of.

The play opens about 20 years after Sor Juana's death. The convent was once a center of culture where Sor Juana had presided over one of the largest libraries in the new world, wrote poetry and plays, and shared them with the people of what will become Mexico City. By the time our play opens it has become closed off and quiet under pressure of the inquisition in Mexico. Sor Juana herself died of the plague at the age of 46, two years after renouncing her writings and swearing never to write again.

Our play opens with the arrival of Jesusa, a young orphan Mestizo ("mixed") girl in the caste system of the time, sent over from another order's convent to work at the Convent of San Jeronimo; and Tomasita, a young Nahua girl, even lower in the caste system than Jesusa and brought there by her desperate mother to be a servant; a slave, really, but with some presumed measure of safety. There they meet Manuela, a Spanish family's daughter who has been sent to the convent for several months, to hide the increasingly obvious reason.

These girls encounter an older generation of nuns, all of whom remember the time before the inquisition shut down their life of culture, music, and letters, and most of whom collude in their silencing for their safety. The younger generation disrupts this safety, with the help of Sor Isabel, the convent's most dangerous nun for being its closest link to Sor Juana and keeper of the convent's institutional memory. Together they discover some of Sor Juana's papers, long thought to be burned, and explore what is forbidden and precious. Forbidden to them are, to us, "harmless" activities we take for granted like reading, playing music, writing, putting on a play, wearing "men's" clothing, befriending someone outside your group. For these characters, daring to do these things means great risk to themselves and their community.

There's a scene that moved me to laughter and tears where the young women are trying on men's clothes, costumes for acting out the play of Sor Juana's that they found. Imagine living in a world where just putting on pants was so transgressive and where the feeling would be so new and so odd. This playful, joyful scene turns out by the end of the play to be a very important dress rehearsal.

Saracho shows us the devotion, love, and sacrifice that women can extend to each other. She is also unflinching in her treatment of women who protect the status quo and cooperate with injustice in the name of protecting other women.

For example, the Mother Superior, fiercely played by Judith-Marie Bergan. We love Bergan's performances. We've seen her in many goofy roles and she's hilarious. I like to think she's probably a sweetheart in real life. But as this Mother Superior, I wanted to storm the stage and knock her over. And my impotent rage was amplified by being grudgingly convinced that she really believed her cruelty would protect the sisters in her care from something much worse than the deprivation of art, music, soul, and voice: the very ability to breathe. But breath that can never animate a song, a musical instrument, a poem, a play, a shared language, a forbidden friendship.

Saracho is also deft in putting together the various "us and thems" of this colonial "new Spain" world: occupier and occupied; nun and not; the caste system; different religions and religious orders; women and their role relative to men. She doesn't preach, she portrays, weaving together a world that has all of these different dynamics in it and forcing her characters to make their choices.

The three younger characters forged forbidden relationships with joyful performances from Vivia Font as Jesusa, Sabina Zuniga Varela as Tomasita, and Alejandra Escalante as Manuela. Font gave Jesusa all the wide-eyed bubbliness and naivete the role needs. Zuniga Varela's performance spoke volumes more than merely the spoken lines of the play, allowing Tomasita, the most vulnerable and consequently the most realistic, to blossom slowly and carefully. And Escalante showed us a brat-girl-woman teetering already on the consequences and disillusionment of privilege, a sheltered life, and very limited options. The extraordinary Vilma Silva as Sor Rufina and Wilma Bonet as Sor Filomena furnished their characters with distinct and fully formed personalities, women with their own very different ways of coping with the silencing of the convent and their lives.

How wonderful and all too rare to have a play with seven good roles for women; seven good roles for Latina women; and four of them that could be cast by older women. Indeed, I think they should be cast with—what's the euphemism, "mature" actors? This is my only quibble with this production. I wish Sor Isabel could have been played by an actor of more years than the lovely Sofia Jean Gomez, for all the gravitas she brought to the role (I would travel anywhere at any cost to see Gomez play the role again some years from now). Sor Isabel is the cultural and emotional memory of the Convent of San Jeronimo, and the elder who passes on what is precious to a younger generation. She has a lifetime of history and relationships with the other sisters, going back to her aunt Sor Juana. How I would love to see this play cast with all Latina actors, and four of them older.

In addition to being a good story well told, the production was beautiful. Jesusa's inclination and talent is for music. Composer and sound designer Rodolfo Ortega used music—live lyre and singing as well as recorded music—to enhance and expand the character and story. I wish there was a soundtrack or sheet music so I could hear that music again. And there was more music in the way Sor Juana's poetry and the Nahuatl language were woven into the story. The use of papers, lost, found, and lost again, was entrancing. I wanted to rush the stage and pick up and save the precious falling papers myself (after knocking over Judith-Marie Bergan).

My understanding is that Saracho was originally commissioned to translate and bring a play of Sor Juana's to the stage. Instead she asked: what happened next? I would still love to see a play by Sor Juana, but I'm thrilled the world has this new play. I'm curious how it may have developed in the course of the production. The opening was a bit later than planned, we heard from local folks that it continued to evolve after the opening, and comparing what I saw to the script from the Tudor Guild bookshop, there are some salutary changes. I'm fascinated by the process of allowing a new play to develop in response to real audiences and the artists' experience of producing it. By the time we saw it very late in the run, it was a finished, polished thing of beauty. OSF's choice to take risks on new work and give artists a home to develop their art is a huge part of why we keep coming back year after year.

The play resonated on so many levels and was so beautiful—visually, musically, poetically, intellectually, emotionally—that I came out of this production trembling and weeping, and I wasn't the only woman in the Bowmer Theatre bathroom afterward trying to get recomposed. The ovations both times we saw it were enthusiastically appreciative even by generous OSF audience standards.

What would happen if you were deprived of art, beauty, voice, home, family, friends, everything lovely and precious to you? This story gives a few glimpses into that eternal dramatic question: what happens next? Things aren't going to be any fun for the sisters or Manuela inside the convent. The recovered papers are burning. Jesusa and Tomasita are embarking on a very risky journey with the last of Sor Juana's papers. It is one of the most satisfying of endings for being so open-ended, pointing to a future full of hope and possibility and undoubtedly pain and disappointment. The final curtain is—literally and dramatically—breathtaking.

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