Intense Sor Juana story opens first Latino Theater Festival

Rebeca Aleman plays Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz in “The Worst of All,” one of the productions in the first Chicago International Latino Theater Festival. | Festival photo

Created by the Chicago Latino Theater Alliance — an organization founded just last year and devoted to fostering and showcasing the work of emerging Latino playwrights as well as classic and contemporary artists, and to attracting a cross-cultural audience — this hugely ambitious monthlong project will feature 11 productions by companies with roots in Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela and Chicago. And the shows will be presented on stages throughout the city.Getting things started on a strong note is the U.S. premiere of “The Worst of All,” an intense, poetic work by Venezuelan playwright Iraida Tapias that captures the passion and tragic destruction of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. The self-taught scholar, philosopher, poet and nun of 17th century “New Spain” (an early force in the creation of both Mexican literature and the broader Spanish Golden Age), she was a woman whose intellectual brilliance, uncompromising proto-feminist spirit and ferocious determination to think freely at any cost made her a prime target of the church hierarchy and ultimately led to her death.

Rebeca Aleman (left) as Sor Juan Ines de la Cruz and Catherina Cardozo
as Countess Maria Luisa in “The Worst of All.” | Chicago International
Latino Theater Festival photo

 

Directed by Juan Jose Martin and co-produced by the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Chicago-based Water People Theater (an ensemble comprised of many Venezuelan-born artists), “The Worst of All” features a formidable cast of four led by the remarkable Rebeca Aleman as Sor Juana (referred to in her lifetime as “The Tenth Muse”); Catherina Cardozo as Vicereine Maria Luisa, Countess of Paredes, Sor Juana’s aristocratic Spanish patron and publisher (and perhaps something more); Jose Maria Mendiola as her determined enemy, Aguiar y Seijas, Archbishop of Mexico, and Israel Balza as Father Nunez de Miranda, the local priest who was Sor Juana’s childhood friend, and was charged with being her confessor and disciplinarian.

Rebeca Aleman as Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz in “The Worst of All.” | 
Chicago International Latino Theater Festival photo.

The actors are uniformly superb, though their rapid-fire Spanish, paired with projected English super-titles that often move too quickly to read in full (especially if you’re simultaneously trying to keep your eyes on the performers), can be frustrating. Tapias’ play is full of impassioned arguments about everything from free will and the nature of love to theology, the suppression of women, the power of poetry and the connection between science and a comprehension of God. And it can just be too much too fully savor at this speed. In addition, the stage and seating at the National Museum of Mexican Art is more suited for a lecture than a play. But the six rectangular columns that comprise the essential structure of Martin’s set are brought to vivid life by the raw, beautiful, richly evocative textured paintings of Mexican-bred, Chicago-based artist Esperanza Gama that decorate them and suggest both Sor Juana and her compulsive writings, while Raquel Rios’ costumes capture the status and mental state of the characters.

Born out of wedlock, Sor Juana was recognized early on for her prodigious mind, and in 1669 she entered the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns, where she believed she had the best chance to devote herself to study otherwise prohibited for women. She amassed a vast library, acquired a certain degree of wealth, and, thanks to the Countess, had her writing published in Spain — the one thing that assured her legacy. Continually condemned for being vain, arrogant and heretical in her thought, she refused to heed the warnings of punishment designed to silence her, and was gradually denied everything, ultimately suffering a crisis of doubt and signing a confession penned in her own blood that began, “I Worst of All,” that was a repudiation of her life and work.Aleman’s charting of Sor Juana’s pained yet often ecstatic existence, her dogged attempts to maintain her freedom, and her gradual undoing are ideally rendered, with Cardozo adding just the right sense of support, admiration and suppressed desire. Mendiola is the essence of smug authoritarianism. And Balza brings a fine sense of compassion and weakness to his portrayal of the local priest in this tragic tale of repression.

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