Theater Review | THE TENTH MUSE by Tanya Saracho at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

In a post Mel Brooks, post Monty Python world, is it still possible to write a serious play about the Spanish Inquisition?

3-stars

First, the backstory.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (b. 1651), known as “The Tenth Muse”, was an actual poet, playwright, and nun in 16th century Mexico (New Spain). The illegitimate daughter of a Spanish Captain, Sor Juana was born near Mexico City and learned to read and write by the age of three. Reading was forbidden for girls, so Sor Juana early on showed a propensity for the kind of intelligence and anti authoritarian balls that would later land her in hot water with cheerless officials down at the Catholic church’s HQ.

A brilliant student, Sor Juana swam heavily upstream against the male dominated world of her era, at one point attempting to pass as a man (unsuccessfully) to be able to advance her own studies in Mexico City. At the age of 17, she joined a monastery of Hieronymite nuns. Clearly not one to cave in easily, Sor Juana started to advocate for the rights of women to an education, an apparent blasphemy that brought censure from the Archbishop of Mexico. In 1693, to avoid further problems (or going on the rack), Sor Juana stopped writing. She died in a plague on April 17, 1695.

Jesusa (Vivia Font), Manuela (Alejandra Escalante) and Tomasita (Sabina Zuniga Varela) discuss a radical course of action. Photo by Jenny Graham.
“Did anyone bring clothes for this play?” Jesusa (Vivia Font), Manuela (Alejandra Escalante) and Tomasita (Sabina Zuniga Varela) discuss a radical course of action. Photo by Jenny Graham.

If this broad story line sounds like it could be played as a fast-paced, over the top farce by cross-dressed men a la Monty Python, it definitely could. And how well Tanya Saracho’s earnest world premiere play about colonial Mexico in 1715 works for you will depend in no small part on your ability to completely block out, for at least two acts, the repertoire of Messrs Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Chapman, Jones, Palin – and Mel Brooks.

Ultimately, by simply exhorting us to know and respect history and its horrible, terrible (terrible!) injustices (which of course are completely legitimate), but inadequately putting them on stage in a form we can care about and invest in directly, Saracho’s historical play risks turning into melodrama and comedy.

Manuela (Alejandra Escalante) reacts to a love poem the girls (Vivia Font, Sabina Zuniga Varela) have just found. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Oh. My. God. Manuela (Alejandra Escalante) reacts to a love poem the girls (Vivia Font, Sabina Zuniga Varela) have just found. Photo by Jenny Graham.

In THE TENTH MUSE, it’s colonial Mexico 20 years after Sor Juana’s death. On the opening, three young women from different backgrounds are thrown together inside the confines of a strict Catholic convent (apparently not a whole lot has changed) where a predictably stern and fire-breating holy Mother presides. Locked, for all practical purposes, in the basement, they are instructed to not touch that large, locked cabinet, which turns out to contain (you guessed it) a trove of forbidden manuscripts by Sor Juana that were supposed to have been destroyed.

An affinity between the three and the writing is developed. “We’re being oppressed. She was oppressed. Let’s read and act out one of her plays and somehow discover some way out of the fact that we’re women living in early 18th century Mexico.” Naturally, the repeated scenes of surreptitious playacting by the women, who read Sor Juana’s words to each other on enraptured evenings, risk discovery by the convent authorities and the hellish Mother. And eventually the girls are found out.

Sor Filomena (K.T. Vogt, right ) offers Sor Rufina (Vilma Silva) a sample of her prepartions for the visiting Inquisition. Photo by Jenny Graham.
We value your suggestions about how to change our calcified institution. Not. Sor Filomena (K.T. Vogt, right ) offers Sor Rufina (Vilma Silva) a sample of her prepartions for the visiting Inquisition. Photo by Jenny Graham.

It’s all a bit too literary and writerly. While the idea that a forbidden play, rediscovered by three young seekers, themselves persecuted and looking for guidance, could be this important and relevant to history no doubt appeals to a playwright, the core dramatic work this hallowed play is asked to do is a bit contrived. There’s the inevitable scene where precious pages fly out of the breached cabinet willy nilly (fly free into the light!), cascading over the delighted women. There’s a lot of consciousness raising going on here, and to take some of it you kind of have to set your visage grimly against smiling – not unlike our crusty Mother might. No laughing here, people. I mean none.

Sor Isabel (Sofia Jean Gomez, right) tries to encourage her fellow sisters (K.T. Vogt, far left, Vilma Silva) to remember the old times at the convent, as the young servant girls (Sabina Zuniga Varela, Vivia Font) prepare an herbal remedy. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Where is Mel Brooks when you need him? Sor Isabel (Sofia Jean Gomez, right) tries to encourage her fellow sisters (K.T. Vogt, far left, Vilma Silva) to remember the old times at the convent, as the young servant girls (Sabina Zuniga Varela, Vivia Font) prepare an herbal remedy. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Because, let’s face it. History – especially remote history – is pretty hilarious. All that suffering! Horrors! Being told, as we are in program notes and other materials, that Sor Juana is a major influence on Mexico and a writer of supreme importance, is not a sufficient replacement for actual drama we can engage with on stage. It may be that Sor Juana was a great figure in her day. But being exhorted to know that, feel that – without really seeing it – grows old.

The play is loaded with well-meaning and unassailable maxims galore – plenty of things we’d all agree with like:

Spanish Inquisition = Bad
Artistic freedom and inspiration = Good
Oppressed women living under tyranny = Bad
etc.

We get it.

But having such simplistic, obvious points dumped on us is not the same as creating a good drama we can care about and inhabit.

After leaving the show, I could not resist calling up memories of OSF’s stand out 2010 production of RUINED by Lynn Nottage. Here is another playwright concerned with putting the lives of women on stage. And yet how different the result. I think I saw RUINED three times and could have seen it five more. It remains high on my list of lifetime highlights. In Nottage’s deeply moving and engaging play, we come to live with Mama Nadi and her girls. We enter their world. We see their lives. We know their real lives with a shocking immediacy. There is not a single second where you might want to burst into inappropriate laughter. But you will cry.

With about half the words of MUSE, Nottage creates the real deal – a world of utmost seriousness, where everything matters, where everything is at stake and we need to decide where we stand. There are no literary contraptions to juggle or get in between us and the action. We don’t need to know a boatload of history to get it. Instead, we are in direct communication with the people on stage. They are living. And through them, we live, too.

Nottage’s achievement is even more impressive when you realize how little actually happens plot wise in her story. It is the characters, and their stories (brought to life by an unforgettable OSF cast) that speak to us. Of course, Nottage went to the Congo and interviewed rape survivors as part of writing her play. And you can feel this credibility over every inch of the result. During Saracho’s play, by contrast, I spent a lot of time wondering if this is what people in 1715 would have sounded like.

After returning from Ashland this summer, I asked a colleague at work to do an experiment. I told him I was going to say a phrase, and I wanted him to just say the first thing that came to mind.

Me: “Spanish Inquisition”

Him: “Monty Python”

That’s what I thought.

In our age, if you’re taking on the Spanish Inquisition in a serious way on stage, watch out.

Let your audience’s attention wander for just a minute, and suddenly, without warning, an image of Mel Brooks lashed to a wheel will flash across the group consciousness. And the irresistible urge to laugh in the face of the monstrous will be there. Just like that.

In more than a few moments during MUSE I started dimly seeing nuns line dancing and hapless victims burning on the rack.

But in a good way.

Sor Isabel (Sofia Jean Gomez) tells the girls (Vivia Font, Alejandra Escalante, Sabina Zuniga Varela) what they must do to save the legacy of Sor Juana. Photo by Jenny Graham.
Mellow drama. Sor Isabel (Sofia Jean Gomez) tells the girls (Vivia Font, Alejandra Escalante, Sabina Zuniga Varela) what they must do to save the legacy of Sor Juana. Photo by Jenny Graham.