On Monday, I caught the opening performance of the Goodman's new production of Karen Zacarías's The Sins of Sor Juana, a fictionalized take on the life of the fascinating 17th century Mexican poet and nun Juana Inés de la Cruz. Juana was a precociously brilliant child, composing poetry by the age of 8 and mastering Latin soon after. As a teenager she entered the court of the viceroy of Mexico City and became highly regarded for both her intellect and her beauty. Juana joined a convent at age 16, presumably to enjoy greater freedom to write than would otherwise be allowed a woman, and produced a significant output of prose and poetry. She kept her cell essentially as a salon, with many frequent visits from leading thinkers in colonial Mexico. She was ultimately punished for writing a letter to a bishop in defense of a woman's right to an education, keeping her from writing again before she died from cholera.
Unfortunately, the character in Zacarías's play is drawn less from the historical Sor Juana and more from a composite of several Disney princesses. She is strong-willed, quick-witted, and endowed with beauty that's just ethnic enough to be appealingly exotic, and is otherwise entirely vapid. From the very beginning, Juana glows in that princessly manner in her white habit and pure American English, surrounded by side characters sporting black clothing and Mexican accents peppering their dialog with plenty of "¡Ay Dios Mio!"s.
Indeed, Zacarías, who has a long résumé of writing for children's theatre, dips into the well of Disney stock characters throughout: the evil, conniving viceroy; his inept sidekick with unrequited love for Juana; the handsome and clever scoundrel who is surprised to find himself falling for the woman he is meant to deceive; the dim-witted but lovable novice; the irreverent but infinitely wise nursemaid, etc. The only real surprise is that none of them are talking animals, which is a shame cause I like animals.
Like a typical children's play, the narrative is frustratingly linear, with hardly a sentence devoted to anything that does not directly facilitate the extremely familiar plot. The Sins of Sor Juana focuses mainly on the poet's days in the court before becoming a nun, feebly attempting to explain why she entered the convent. Zacarías's version involves the viceroy scheming to destroy Juana's reputation by hiring a charming rogue to pose as an aristocrat to seduce her, with the usual results. Considering Juana's radical writing in defense of the rights of women, the suggestion that she needed the lost love of a man as her poetic inspiration becomes borderline offensive.
Despite her rich historical subject matter, Zacarías fails to portray any particular brilliance in Juana, save for her explicit declarations of her own talent, as well as her incredible knack to quote herself in order to win arguments. I find it remarkable that someone like Zacarías can actually devote her life to writing yet find no other way to telegraph a character's artistic passion than through clichéd exclamations of images suddenly flowing through her head in streams that just cannot be stopped, with Juana comically scribbling as quickly as possible for days straight, the poetry being the only thing keeping her alive. It takes just a few minutes of limp seduction before she is head over heels, and she needs only a single compliment about her writing to win her over into becoming a nun. Zacarías magically transforms a fascinating icon of Mexican literature into the worst kind of self-important and vain "poet" this side of undergraduate art school.
The Goodman also continues its baffling practice of importing television actors from New York and Los Angeles at the expense of local talent for the leads, including Tony Plana of Ugly Betty. Though some of the supporting cast performs admirably, particularly Laura Crotte and Joe Miñoso, the lack of chemistry in the out-of-towners doesn't help to justify their casting, though admittedly they have little in the script to work with. It's a frustrating production, as the director Henry Godinez was also behind Boleros for the Disenchanted, the most satisfying production I've seen in years at the Goodman. Instead, it's just another in the list of duds from the biggest and most consistently disappointing theatre in Chicago.