Like dungaree-clad workmen in a proletarian drama of the 1930s, the plucky young women of "The Tenth Muse" rise up against an oppressive, imperialist system.
In Tanya Saracho's drama, which had its world premiere Saturday night in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Bowmer Theatre, the villain is not a greedy capitalist but a tyrannical ecclesiastic, Mother Superior of the Convent of San Jeronimo near today's Mexico City.
And by extension the Church of colonial New Spain (Mexico) itself. It's 1715, and for nearly two centuries the Church has been an integral part of a racist, sexist system of exploitation that, among its many transgressions, seeks to quash the artistic spirit whenever it springs up.
The play's action begins with the arrival at the convent of three young women, the mestiza (half-Spanish, half-American Indian) Jesusa, the Nahua Indian Tomasita and the spoiled little rich Spanish girl Manuela.
Jesusa has come to serve Sor Isabel (Sofia Jean Gomez), a sickly nun who is going blind.
Scenic designer Richard Hay's forboding convent looms as inscrutable and terrifying as Kafka's castle. When Jesusa (Vivia Font) is finally granted entrance by the prickly Sor Rufina (Vilma Silva), she is thrown together with Tomasita (Sabina Zuniga Varela) and Manuela (Alejandra Escalante), three fish out of water.
The girls are warned that in the ramshackle basement that serves as their quarters there is a mysterious armoire they are never to open. You can bet your last dime on what happens next. Inside the box are the writings of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a famous nun and intellectual who died in the convent a generation earlier.
Sor Juana was a real person and actually wound up in San Jeronimo. Known as "The 10th Muse of Mexico," she was a writer of Spanish descent who became a rising star in the Mexican court despite her illegitimate birth. Throwing that life over to become a bride of Christ, she wrote plays, poems, essays and music but ran afoul of the Church, which silenced her. She escaped an unpleasant fate, perhaps burning at the stake, by renouncing her writings.
Sor Juana in death is an inspiration to our young women, who are soon acting out one of her plays, "House of Desires," (a real play, a comedy) when nobody is looking. Thus, Saracho's play, in a reversal of the device of the play-within-a-play, is a play around a play.
Play-acting puts the girls in peril, since the tyrannical Mother Superior (Judith-Marie Bergan, in a performance that makes her Violet Weston look like a fun date) is on a mission from God to stomp out the artistic spirit always and everywhere, especially if it involves romance and/or laughter.
Off-stage looms the ever-present threat of the Inquisition. Is Mother Superior really that afraid of it, or just rationalizing her actions?
Either way it's not an idle threat. The Inquisition was active in New Spain, mainly around Mexico City, from the 16th to the early 19th centuries, persecuting and burning heretics, Jews, gays, scholars and backsliders.
So begins the consciousness-raising of the girls. When they don men's clothes for the play, they step out with comic machismo. But they must be careful. In effect they take as their credo the motto of a fictional artist from a later century, Stephen Dedalus, who also had to rebel against both his church and his society to become an artist: silence, exile and cunning.
But not silent enough, since the girls are discovered. In fact they are discovered repeatedly. There are a number of scenes (I lost count) of the fledgling actors getting busted by heavies in nuns' habits bursting into the basement. You could just about tell when Mother Superior and the scapular mafia were about to show up, stage left.
Director Laurie Woolery stresses the notion of legacy as the lives of these young women are changed by Sor Juana's words echoing through time. That's fitting for a play designed to stir up the troops. But Woolery also writes in her notes that, "The convent was the only place (Sor Juana) could go that would embrace her hunger for knowledge."
That's a strange assertion, since the idea of educating women rubbed the Church of the play's day they same way it rubs today's Taliban.
It was in the convent that Sor Juana was forced to renounce her hunger for knowledge, perhaps on pain of death. And in the same convent that a new generation's hunger for knowledge runs afoul of the villainous Mother Superior.
"The Tenth Muse" is simple on its surface but ambitious beneath. It melds history play, fairy tale (young innocents thrown into dark place with scary evil person), feminist agit-prop, issues of social class, the Latina legacy, the coming-of-age story and the artistic journey.
In a totalitarian world to create art is to court danger. It is ipso facto a political act, since creating a pole of reference outside the system — and beauty outside the ugliness — is a threat to the system's claim of a monopoly on truth.
The play's didactic ambitions threaten to bog it down here and there, but it gets its mojo back when the fledgling thespians get busted yet again, and we wonder if Mother Superior this time will be calling for the cordwood and the matches.
The playing is generally crisp. The characters are not round, nor are rounded characters needed for the play's melodramatic style. But Font's Jesusa glows with youthful naivete. And Gomez stands out as Sor Juana's spiritual descendant (and blood niece) Sor Isabel, who is ecstatically drunk on art and the freedom she alone dares to glimpse.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.