Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Support City Paper!
The reciprocal relationship between art and suffering sits at the heart of Los Pecados de Sor Juana (The Sins of Sor Juana), the examination of the life of 17th-century nun and poet Juana Inés de la Cruz by Karen Zacarías, founding artistic director of Young Playwrights’ Theater. In his book Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith, Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz speculated that some of the Mexican literary figure’s famously mysterious wounds may have been self-inflicted, but Zacarías prefers to cast Sor Juana as a victim of patriarchal attitudes, the Roman Catholic Church, and her intellectual rivals. Still, the author strives to avoid hagiography: The bulk of the first act drops the character into the Mexican court of her early patron Doña Leonor Carreto, where the then-teen prodigy sharpened her wit amid a collection of fops, dandies, and rogues—a vivid Technicolor fantasy designed to counteract the terminally drab convent setting of much of Sor Juana’s life. Zacarías focuses on the same attributes that fascinated Paz in his definitive biography: the sensual imagery inherent in her poems, Sor Juana’s proto-feminist attitudes, and her spirited (and ultimately damning) debates with ecclesiastical superiors. Like Paz, Zacarías seems less interested in exploring the terms of her subject’s religious conviction. Equal parts Romeo and Juliet and Measure for Measure, with a dollop of Isabel Allende’s magical realism, Los Pecados de Sor Juana suggests that Sor Juana’s unheralded literary mind was too enamored with arts and letters to consider the convent as anything other than a sanctuary for her intellectual pursuits. Zacarías’ Sor Juana (played wonderfully by Ana Verónica Muñoz) becomes emboldened when the script starts ripping tiny holes in the fabric of her reality: Figures from the nun’s life appear as avatars and apparitions behind the backlit scrim; characters begin entering the stage from wardrobes and chests; Sor Juana is relieved of her habit to reveal a petticoat and corset. The play has been translated into Spanish since its original premiere at the Theater of the First Amendment in 1999, and it’s presented here with English surtitles. During the production’s more fantastical moments, Los Pecados de Sor Juana becomes drunk on language and its attendant rhythms, and stimuli emerge from all directions—snippets of poetry recited in their native languages, quasi-omniscient English translation from above, the codified gestures of court life. Turns out Zacarías is really painting with a 19th-century palette here: The life of Juana Inés de la Cruz begs for some additional layers of interpretation, but what we’re left with is a very passionate, if ironically iconic, portrayal.—Nick Green