Mind Power

'The Sins of Sor Juana' highlights the life of an intellect before her time.

America's first feminist was a woman who flourished at the intersection of two indomitable patriarchal cultures: 17th-century Spanish imperialism and the Catholic Church. Juana Ramirez de Asbaje, born out of wedlock in Mexico in 1648 or 1651, displayed such prodigious intellect that she attracted courtly attention as a child and spent her late teens as lady-in-waiting to the viceroy's wife. At age 19 she suddenly entered a convent, and became Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Cloistered only in the sense that she didn't leave the convent, she brought the world to her cell. She amassed a huge library, held weekly salons with leading members of secular society, and became Mexico's first great poet and playwright.

She stumbled into a power struggle between two of her superiors, though. One result was an important treatise in which she attacked the theological basis of women's submission to men. Not surprisingly, the Church hierarchy cracked down on her, and Juana abandoned writing and learning during the last two years of her life; she died in 1695, ministering to nuns stricken with the plague.

In the past few decades, Sor Juana has become a Mexican cultural icon; the most important study of her life and work was written by no less a figure than Octavio Paz. She's not the first nun-intellectual; predecessors include Hildegard of Bingen, the most significant poet-composer of 12th-century Germany, and Christine de Pizan, the early 15th-century French writer of highly regarded treatises on love, war and estate management (who admittedly did most of her work before retiring to a convent). But Sor Juana is closer to us in time, geography and language, and because certain details of her biography remain tantalizingly unclear, she is a highly romantic figure.

A figure ripe for theatrical treatment, in fact. Karen Zacarías' recent The Sins of Sor Juana, now being presented by Borderlands Theater, attempts to fill in those key biographical details. If you want facts, stick to Octavio Paz; The Sins of Sor Juana plays fast and loose with Juana's story, fabricating conflicts and love interests. It's hooey as history, but as her story it's as well crafted, politically astute and shamelessly entertaining as the best plays of Juana's Spanish near-contemporaries Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca.

People more familiar with English plays of that approximate period may find a few Shakespearean touches in The Sins of Sor Juana. Generous humor in the play's first half eases us toward high tragedy near the end in the manner of, say, Romeo and Juliet. Sor Juana is, indeed, a love story (as well as a portrait of a budding intellectual), but it's a love story instigated by the cruel misogyny of characters who would be perfectly comfortable in Neil LaBute's 1997 In the Company of Men.

The real Juana entered the convent simply because there was nowhere else a woman of that period could practice the life of the mind. Zacarías, though, provides Juana with the motivation of a tragic love affair. In fact, it's a love triangle--no, a quadrangle--even though Juana does her best to rise above love's geometry.

As Zacarías has it, the Viceroy wants to remove young Juana from court because his wife is developing an inappropriate fixation on the girl. In a complex plot to ruin Juana, the Viceroy hires a smart, suave bastard thief named Silvio to seduce her. The Viceroy's valet, Pedro, is also a party to this deception, although his motives are complicated. Juana has rebuffed his romantic overtures, and he would prefer to be the instrument of her downfall himself--although for all his macho talk, it's not clear precisely how far he would go.

The men are initially vile, but Zacarías isn't about to populate her play with stereotypes. The key figures fall victim to their inner turmoil and the unwitting seductiveness of Juana's intellect, with complex and moving results.

In another Renaissance touch, as the play progresses the characters grow more inclined to slip into verse dialog, drawn from Juana's own poetry. But even here, Zacarías manipulates the source material to her own ends. At one point in the play, Juana contrasts "women who sin for love [with] men who love to sin." But in Juana's earthy original, the critical word is not amor, or love, but paga--"she who sins for money [and] he who pays to sin." The contemporary playwright, even while dramatizing the life of a struggling feminist, is much more of a romantic than the Baroque poet.

Borderlands' production, though uneven, grows stronger through the evening. The early scenes in the convent--which actually take place after the play's main action--are stridently written and on opening night were stiff and stagey. Things soon picked up, especially with the appearance of Dwayne Palmer as Silvio. Swaggering and cocky even in chains, he introduces a real element of danger. Leigh-Ann Santillanes makes Juana as alluring for her intelligence as for her beauty, although she plays better off the cast's men than its women. Among the other actors, Rosanne Couston stands out as the sensible, cynical Aztec servant Xochitl.

Also notable is the original score by William Campbell, which supports the story with Renaissance-style themes and forms undercut by subtly unsettled modern harmony.

Not just a costume drama, The Sins of Sor Juana reminds us that, in certain respects, love's tensions have hardly changed in 300 years. More than one character utters a line still muttered by lovers jealous of a partner's inner life: "I want her back from inside her mind."

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