Never one to pass up an opportunity to watch a comedia in action, I was lucky enough to get one of the few remaining seats for a Saturday performance of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s Los empeños de una casa by the Joven Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico, directed by Helena Pimenta.
Staged in the Sala Tirso de Molina, a black box theater in the Teatro de la Comedia complex, the players made strategic use of a sparsely set stage: two opposing doors represented gateways to the dangerous outside world of Toledo and the inner mysteries of the house, and four floor-to-ceiling reproductions of era appropriate erotic paintings covered in gauzy black curtains alternately hid lovers from sight and revealed their desires. The stripped-down stage and excellent lighting effects allowed the masterful verse of the play to shine with all the pathos and humanity with which they are imbued.
This adaptation of the play was made particularly enjoyable by many of the staging decisions, including the presentation of character asides within a kind of freeze frame: characters spoke to each other or the audience at their leisure, while those not meant to be aware of the goings on froze in place or reacted in slow-motion to the continuing action. A similar technique was used in the JCNTC’s 2016 production of Lope de Vega’s La villana de Getafe, offering a workable solution to the issue of the asides which trouble so many modern actors.
However, one of the most charming pieces of stage work involved the use of props to illuminate and clarify what can be often an overwhelming number of character relationships and intertwined plots in Sor Juana’s twisty comedia. These many enredos were visualized throughout using skeins of thick yarn, with the various characters assigned specific colors which were stabbed through with crotchet needles, tangled, or unraveled to represent romantic couplings and uncouplings both real and longed for. The opening monologue of the wonderfully antagonistic Doña Ana, played by Georgina de Yebra, introduced the humorous storytelling technique of laying out the relationships with colorful yarn, a convenient reminder throughout the play of where each character’s desires lie, and by whom they were being thwarted.
At 120 minutes, the tight pacing swept the lovers through a whirlwind night of confusion which was made all the livelier by various musical interludes. In these moments characters expressed their thoughts and feelings through song, joined on and off-stage by supporting actors/musicians with all the energy of a Rogers and Hammerstein show, which were so fun that I, at least, was left somewhat disappointed that the production didn’t commit to a full-blown musical format.
Aside from the minor changes in the plot —including changing the role of Don Rodrigo from father to brother to better reflect the actor’s age— this adaptation reimagined an ending where Leonor’s leftover suitor, Don Pedro, finds his match in the cross-dressed Castaño. While the adjustment occurs so quickly at the end that there is almost no time to dwell on the implications of a gay relationship for this particular play, Pimenta’s choice to embrace the comedia’s queering of seventeenth century Spanish society represents a larger trend in modern presentations of comedia on both sides of the Atlantic.