Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Poetic, Surreal Tribute to an Icon: “Properties of Silence” upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse
The venerable About Productions, a company devoted to creating original interdisciplinary theater, and educational programs to go with them, is celebrating its 26th anniversary by bringing back favorite productions from their past. One of these, the brief, somewhat surreal salute to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, “Properties of Silence,” has been revived at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse, accompanied by a salon series of post-production events.
The play itself can best be categorized by saying that it is to theater what a Frieda Kahlo painting is to art: representational to a point, then enhanced with the surreal quality of dreams, portents and symbolism. By Theresa Chavez, who directs, Alan Pulner, and Rose Portillo, who portrays Sor Juana, the play meshes the story of the famed scientist-nun with that of a modern real estate saleswoman in Arizona drifting into new realizations about her life with her swimming pool contractor husband. But that’s really just the representational layer.
Sor Juana, a 17th Century Mexican nun whose choice of the convent was more about the chance to remain single and to study than about faith, became known internationally for her plays and poetry, but also for her scientific experiments and her vast collection of books. Yet, in the end, the church hierarchy was not comfortable with a nun – a woman – achieving this kind of temporal notoriety and she was shut down. For this play, based philosophically upon two of her writings, we examine the changes of life which provide equal shifts in self-definition. This is then brought to modern times.
Portillo gives Sor Juana an elemental internal calm, which works as counterbalance to the upheavals of the modern couple. As Barbara, whose discovery that she has followed an unfamiliar path at the end of a familiar day signals a major emotional shift, Elizabeth Rainey literally and figuratively peels the layers from her normal existence until she begins to resonate with Sor Juana’s search for meaning. Kevin Sifuentes, playing both the dominant, success-oriented pool contractor and the voice of church authority, becomes that contrary male image in the face of female self-discovery. His performance is solid, marred only on occasion by the necessity to be a quick-change artist.
The underlying structure of the play addresses that moment when one’s life shifts dramatically, but sometimes in unseen ways. The use of ancient philosophical statements, especially Heraclitus’ “No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man,” guide the piece into larger statements about growth, change, and the finding of oneself. All of this is done with impressive rapidity, as the show comes in at just under an hour.
Director Chavez has a handle upon the dreamlike quality of this thing, making walls blur and time periods mesh as only dreams can. Then, as it ends – and after a brief intermission – one can mesh one’s feel for the material of the play with one of the many addendums provided afterward, from poetry readings by local published authors to discussions with various members of the creative team, depending on the day.
“Properties of Silence” is fascinating to gradually unravel. Just be aware that the unraveling is necessary, just as much as it would be looking at one of the more profoundly odd Freda Kahlo paintings.
What: “Properties of Silence” When: Through March 29, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, with a special benefit performance on March 8 Where: The Carrie Hamilton Theatre at The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $30 general, $15 students with ID, $60 for all patrons for the March 8 benefit Info: (626) 396-0920 or http://www.aboutpd.org