As Catholic religious orders go, nuns tend to get a lot less attention from the Church than the more famous and well-funded priestly orders. Which is, one radical nun once told me, both good and bad: Nuns get less financial support, but they can also get away with doing almost whatever they want. That may be why Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century nun in colonial Mexico, could become a major Spanish literary figure by writing some fairly racy stuff. Take, for example, Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires), GALA Hispanic Theatre’s current production, which features cross-dressing, an almost-gay marriage, and both men and women wooing their love interests by kidnapping them.
It’s too bad, then, that such a great production is so hard to understand. For all its boundary-pushing irreverence, House of Desires is still a Baroque-era Spanish play (which is to say, written before the development of modern Spanish) full of vosotroses and reversed word order and antiquated vocabulary, much akin to Shakespearean English. And while there are English surtitles, the dialogue is so thick that you basically have to make a choice between watching the action on stage or keeping up with the plot. Extensive conversations, particularly in the first act, are pure exposition.
This kind of firehose approach to plot advancement, normally the crutch of lazy writers, is actually necessary given how convoluted this story is: It’s essentially an entire Mexican telenovela squeezed into a single play. The parallels to such cheesy modern-day TV fare as Corazón salvaje clearly weren’t lost on director Hugo Medrano, who updated the setting from 17th-century Spain to 1940s Mexico without any obvious incongruities. Then, as now and forever, soaps (or soapy plays) revolved around forbidden loves, overly complicated seduction schemes, and big mustaches. In House of Desires, the scheme hatched by a rich brother and sister involves abducting the two objects of their affection to their estate, a plan further complicated by the fact that brother and sister’s respective love interests are dating each other. Then Love Interest No. 1’s valet is into the housekeeper and starts dressing in drag and, well, you should probably read the synopsis in the playbill a couple of times beforehand.
Given the difficulty of just reciting the lines—in addition to the Baroque Spanish, the whole thing is written in rhyming couplets—the acting throughout is impressive. Anchoring the cast, and the story, is Luz Nicolás, a GALA regular who did a terrific Benjamin Button turn in La Señorita de Tacna. Here, she’s sister Ana’s (a strong Natalia Miranda-Guzmán) mischievous housekeeper Celia, clearly Sor Juana’s stand-in because she gets all the best snarky lines. The big mustache is Carlos, Ana’s love interest, played by Erick Sotomayor, the only Mexican in the production, who hams it up with a northern Mexican accent and swagger (Mexicans have similar stereotypes about northern Mexico as Americans do about Texas). At one point, a “Viva México cabrones!” sneaks in that was probably not in Sor Juana’s script. Medrano’s staging, like the acting, is exaggeratedly Mexican—Carlos is disguised, for no discernible reason, as a mariachi, and everyone breaks out into a ranchera song a couple times.
House of Desires is both bold and remarkable, but also a bit of a challenge: a well acted, deeply funny spoof of the very soap operas that it predated by centuries, with some pointed commentary about machismo that will strike you as surprisingly modern. If you can manage to decipher it, that is.
3333 14th St. NW. $20-$42. (202) 234-7174. galatheatre.org