Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a woman, a writer, and an independent thinker in a 17th-century world where it was widely frowned upon to combine any two of those characteristics, let alone all three.
The eponymous offenses in The Sins of Sor Juana include some of the passionate poems for which Sor Juana is celebrated to this day, but they also include truly hurtful actions the character, as portrayed in Karen Zacarías’ 1999 play, comes to regret. When the whole world seems to be against you, Zacarías suggests, it can be hard to know where to compromise, and when to forgive.
The play is eventful and accessible, but Zacarías has given companies a challenging balance to strike: celebrating Sor Juana’s spirit without making her a saint. The new production by Ten Thousand Things is strongest in its first half, before comedy and suspense turn to tragedy. The drawn-out conclusion dilutes the show’s initial impact, in large part because of the playwright’s decision to tell two simultaneous stories that require back-to-back endings on similar notes.
Even by the standards of a company known for quality casts, director Marcela Lorca has assembled a sterling ensemble. In the close confines of the standard Ten Thousand Things stage configuration—in the round, lights up—the actors’ shared energy shines.
That’s particularly true of the would-be romantic triangle at the heart of the play’s main story. An instantly winning Thallis Santesteban plays Sor Juana with a sharp wit and a pure spirit; she’s up against Jason Rojas as an outrageously over-the-top cad and Ryan Colbert as a droll suitor with genuine affection but compromised motives.
They’re in the court of a powerful Viceroy (Pedro Bayón) and Vicereine (Sun Mee Chomet), who are pulling the trio’s strings, but in different directions. Chomet glories in juicy dual roles as the flamboyant Vicereine and as a bratty fundamentalist who becomes Sor Juana’s nunnery nemesis in the framing story.
Zacarías makes generous and effective use of Sor Juana’s poetry, recited in both English and Spanish. The play is attentive to the complex interrelationships of race, class, gender, and nationality in New Spain: today’s Mexico. An Aztec maid (George Keller) keeps being mischaracterized as Mayan, in a clear parallel to the kind of unapologetic ignorance Native communities face today.
The company’s design team efficiently transports us to the story’s setting. Sarah Bahr’s rich costumes have the kind of detail you can really appreciate in this kind of up-close setting, and the props managed by Abbee Warmboe are a marvel. With threats to free speech and to women’s control over their own bodies alarmingly on the rise, Sor Juana is even more resonant today than it was 20 years ago. Lorca’s winning production is an apt tribute to a trailblazing writer who remains underappreciated.
The Sins of Sor Juana
1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-203-9502; through June 9