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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Don Juan de Doily: The Defiant Muse at Victory Gardens

When we went to The Magic Cabaret (run has been extended, again, hooray! Go see it!) , we signed up for their mailing list and ended up winning tickets to a preview of The Defiant Muse. What with M traveling, we wound up with tickets for a night when we also had tickets for a late show with the Mekons. This made for a strange and late evening.

The play, by Nicholas Patricca, is a partially fictionalized account of the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Sor Juana, especially for an illegitimate daughter of a Creole and a Spaniard (and, later, for a cloistered nun), achieved an extraordinary degree of fame and wealth as a scholar and poet in her lifetime. Given that her lifetime happens to have taken place against the baroque backdrop of New Spain in the heyday of the Inquisition, her story is bound to be interesting in its own right.

According to the considerable collection of supplemental text on Victory Gardens' website, despite Sor Juana's inherently juicy life story, Patricca—who worked on the play for more than a decade before it found its current form—felt that something was missing in his telling of that story. Pairing an extraordinary woman and a passionate and articulate crusader for the rights of women with fiction's most notorious libertine might seem an odd move. No, there's no "might seem" about it. It is definitely an odd move.

But what's truly odd about the play (or at least this production of it) is how key the Juanita/Juanito dynamic is to its success. The action and interaction of the play takes several forms. First, Sor Juana, of course, interacts with other characters on the canvas of her life: her confessors, her intellectual mentor, and with, the Vicereine, who is her friend, champion, and lover. (I don't know enough about the historical Sor Juana to know if this is suspected, confirmed, or a nod on Patricca's part to Sor Juana's sharing Sappho's title, "The Tenth Muse," later in her life. I'd like to say that it's not particularly important what kind of love the two women share, but there is some unfortunately confused plot business near the end of the play that requires it to be erotic.) Second, Juana addresses the audience directly in a series of monologues, usually to move the story from one phase of Juanita's life to another.

The less conventional devices of action and interaction involve Don Juan. The players in Juanita/Sor Juana's life don costumes and learn lines to act out the autos of her Don Juan saga as she writes them. These productions also see the addition of two players who are not otherwise present in Juanita's external world: Don Juan himself and his servant. (Hmm, in looking at the program, the actor is listed as Herald/Servant, so perhaps he wasn't meant to be an emanation from Juanita's inner world.) But the real movement of the play, the real digging into Juanita's character and principles, occurs in the literal and metaphorical sparring between Juanita and her Juanito.

Both M and I were staggered at intermission when we read a bit of the program and learned that the very idea of Don Juan at all was so late an addition to the play. Neither of us wanted to contemplate what the play might have been like without the autos or the "dililoquies." This is partly a testament to how well-done these were. Unfortunately, the other part is a testament to how fussy, talky, and soulless much of the rest of the play is. The events are innately interesting, the setting is rich and fascinating, but the monologues and conventional dramatic action strip the life from the story, and they drag.

The show probably runs about 2 hours on the nose, exclusive of announcements and intermission, but it feels longer. Part of that is likely to be production specific: For a show in what I believe was the last night of previews, what we saw was rough, with lots of struggling with dialogue, pacing issues, awkward choreography, and decidedly uneven comfort among the actors with their roles.

There were also some flat-out poor staging/directorial choices. Slow motion never. ever. ever. ever. ever. works on stage. Seriously. Just say no. Sor Juana's "examination" by the 40 scholars is conducted with Juanita seated on a bench facing the audience. The ensemble. all wearing white masks, are gathered in the gallery above and behind her. The questions are amplified with considerable reverb. I suppose it's meant to imply that she is surrounded by threats, and so on, but visually it's just silly. The musical cues were jarring and unpleasant, sounding as they'd come from a clearance CD purchased at the "Nothing but Rainsticks" store. Also, I get (I guess, at least from the program notes) the centrality of the specific style of swordplay to Patricca's play, but I'm not sure director Andrea J. Dymond did. The Juanita/Juanito duels, particularly the one that opens the play, are uncharacteristically clunky and awkward interactions between these two.

So the play itself is pretty flawed, and many aspects of the production leave lots of room for improvement. Still, there are many good things about The Defiant Muse. Fortunately, one of them is Lisa Tejero as Sor Juana. She seemed to struggle a lot with the opening duel scene, so I was somewhat uneasy about her early on. However, she hit her stride not long after. Certainly there were a few worn patches in her performance, but she carries so much of the play—and so much of the play drags—that one doesn't begrudge them. She has a wonderfully expressive face that is equally well-suited to the long locks and rich baroque costume she wears early on and the habit of the second half of the play. She also has a bright and energetic physicality that really brought Sor Juana's wit to life (although this did battle with her habit from time to time).

It seems only fair to mention Tejero first, given that it is her show, but the best performance of the evening was definitely Dan Kenney's as Don Juan. He's funny and charming and smart and wicked. He's a thoroughly original Don Juan, the darker half of Juanita herself, and the half that is not uncomfortable in the absence of clarity. There's a lot of talk about the baroque, generally, and New Spain, specifically, being the crossroads between ancient and modern. As Juanita, Tejero communicates that in large part because of the content of the role. There are definitely shades of Mrs. Dalloway in Juanita. But Kenney has this crossroads in mind every moment. His delivery on every line is pitch perfect, and he even manages to dredge some personal meaning for his character out of what even his dialogue acknowledges to be some punk-ass "resolution" to the Don Juan saga. Even if the rest of the problems with the play and the production were irremediable (and I don't think they are), I would still recommend the show on the merits of Kenney's performance.

The other standout performance, to me, was from Lauran September as an ensemble player and Dona Anna. She is lovely and youthful and sweet, and there's no struggle to understand why Don Juan is so captivated by her that he has followed her all the way to Rome. At the same time, she is and so centered and so sure of her actions that she sells the unfortunate and decidedly patriarchal spin that Sor Juana (or half of her, anyway) puts on the character: That she is hard-wired to shun sexual passion and submit herself to the will of her father and husband, so she is following her true nature in embracing conventionality.

But really, the rest of the cast is very good for the most part. Dawn Alden (Lisi, the Vicereine and Dona Elvira) has a rather one-note style of delivery that I didn't really care for, but much of that is probably personal preference. In my opinion, she was much more convincing and appealing as Dona Elvira than as Lisi, which unfortunately means that her chemistry with Juanita suffers in comparison to that with Juanito.

Ricardo Gutierrez, Kenn E. Head, and Desmin Borges are all good as the collective man in Juanita/Sor Juana's life. Each inappropriately crosses the line from helping her to discover her path into trying, forcibly, to inscribe it, and each has complicated feelings both for and about her. It's a credit to the actors that each character feels necessary to the story when one or more could have felt redundant.

The visuals of the production are quite beautiful. The set reminds me of a lovely set we saw at Noble Fool several years back for a play called Mirandolina (a lovely surprise birthday gift from some of my peeps). The upstage wall is a two-tiered semicircle with three archways on each level. At stage left, a long, dangerous, curving set of stairs with an unacceptably high rise, leads down from the upper level to the main stage, and a curved opening at the bottom of these stairs leads offstage below. The main stage is a large circle and downstage right is a smaller circle comprising Juanita's study. The set is rich and elegant without being cluttered or overbearing, which is a feat in what is not a huge space.

Unfortunately, the costuming doesn't strike the same balance. Sadly, there don't seem to be any production photos, but Lisi's costume, for example, was from the Queenie collection (not like I am now knocking or ever would knock Queenie in anyway, but it's a bit much in an up-close space like VG's) with hair by Dilbert's coworker. It's not that the costumes aren't lovely, they're just too lovely, too rich, and too literally large for the distance between players and audience.

I hope that the production improves through its real run. It seems likely that it will as there's a lot of raw talent involved in it. Despite the shortcomings of the play and the production, though, even if it doesn't improve a whit during its run, it's still well worth seeing.

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