Los Empeños de una Casa at GALA Hispanic Theatre

House of Desires (Los Empeños de una Casa) is a comedy of errors written by Mexican poet and feminist Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz over three hundred years ago. In an ambitious and lively production, GALA (Grupo de Artistas Latinoamericanos) Hispanic Theatre, in Washington, D.C., brings the work alive, in its original, versified Spanish. This is no small feat, but GALA is well suited to the challenge.

Four actors on stage
Actors Mauricio Pita, Oscar Ceville, Natalia Miranda, and Carlos Castillo. Photo by Shalev Weinstein.

Since 1976, when Argentine couple Hugo and Rebecca Medrano founded it, GALA has staged over 200 productions. Considered one of the country’s leading Spanish-language theatres, GALA brings Spanish and Latin American plays to the attention of the Spanish-speaking public in Washington D.C. and exposes the English-speaking public to the richness and variety of Hispanic theatre. GALA’s productions also draw an English-speaking audience in with one-of-a-kind productions and well-translated English surtitles.

Sor Juana spoke eloquently before the authorities of her era obtained her silence. Thanks to fearless and skillful productions like GALA’s, her words, still needed, ring out even now.

The language of House of Desires is difficult, comparable to Shakespearean English, but less concise. The plot, too, is complicated. Don Pedro, owner of the pleasant Mexican hacienda where the action is set, wishes to marry Leonor, a beautiful young woman. Leonor, for her part, has eloped with her beloved, Carlos. To keep Carlos and Leonor from going through with their marriage, Don Pedro has his men intercept them on the road. A scuffle ensues, in which Carlos stabs one of the men. Leonor is taken (conveniently) to Don Pedro’s house for safety. Not knowing that the house belongs to the man who arranged to have him accosted, Carlos—believing he is wanted by the law for stabbing a man—seeks refuge at the ranch. Pedro’s sister, Ana, meanwhile, is in love with Carlos. But in her house, hidden in the backroom by an accommodating servant, is a man who loves and has wooed her, and of whom she has tired—Don Juan de Vargas. In spite of the complex plot and the difficult language (clarified with surtitles in English), in Gala’s hands, House of Desires is enjoyable and thought provoking.

Two actors looking through a fence
Actors Eric Sotomayor and Carlos Castillo. Photo by Lonnie Tague. 

Director Hugo Medrano has set the play, not in seventeenth century Spain as written, but in 1940s Mexico. Setting the action in a more familiar, less distant time and place eases us into the material, while also allowing for lively bursts of mariachi music. The original performance of the play would, of course, have been quite different. First performed in the 1683 royal court of the Viceroy Marquis de la Laguna and his wife, the work was written to celebrate a public occasion in Mexico City, most likely the birth of an heir to the viceroys. House of Desires is a farce, meant to amuse. The title, in fact, puns on the title of a cloak-and-sword drama by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Los Empeños de un Acoso, or The Trials of Chance. But underlying the cross-dressing, the mistaken identity in dark rooms, and the witty plot twists that transpire when a handful of single and lovelorn people are shut up in the same house, are Sor Juana’s thoughtful meditations on the role of women and the scant space given to their desire or will.

Leonor has been seen as a reflection of Sor Juana herself, who at a young age was proclaimed a genius. “They took my learning for genius,” Leonor explains to Ana in the play’s first scene. “Men threw themselves at me. Every man, in obligatory homage. There were so many, I didn’t manage to love any, since all of them loved me.” Sor Juana, after rejecting several marriage proposals, became a nun at the age of eighteen.

From her cloister—and from her vantage point of scholarly distance—she observed how women were railroaded into marriage to preserve their honor or that of their family. Leonor, because she is discovered by her father to have left home without permission (and because she stayed in Don Pedro’s house), is considered “damaged goods,” as he terms it. She must marry Don Pedro. For his part, he agrees to “become her happy master.” Leonor’s father, Don Rodrigo, proclaims, “She can have no desire but my command.” The scene between Don Rodrigo and Don Pedro seems to go on for a very long time, and we become aware that there are no women on stage—just men negotiating over a woman, as if she were property. What Leonor had viewed as love her father terms “wantoness.” From this perspective, Sor Juana’s words, as Leonor speaks them, are plaintive—“Isn’t beauty a curse in a woman of genius?”

One actor attempting to kiss another
Actors Natalie Miranda and Oscar Ceville. Photo by Lonnie Tague. 

For a work meant primarily to amuse, House of Desires affords some trenchant insights into class, as well as into the state of women. As the characters are asking each other which of love’s sufferings are the greatest, Don Carlos’ servant, Castaño—masterfully played by Carlos Castillo—offer this: not unrequited love, or jealousy, but “wanting a wench and having no way to woo her, with nothing in my pocket.” For Celia, Ana’s servant, played with great élan by Luz Nicolas, the greatest torment is trying to woo “with rough hands.” Although wonderful in their roles, Nicolas and Castillo are not alone. The acting in GALA’s production is uniformly good. Natalia Miranda-Guzmán, as Ana, Erick Sotomayor, as Carlos, and Alina Collins Maldonado  as Leonor, are particular standouts.

Since 1976, when Argentine couple Hugo and Rebecca Medrano founded it, GALA has staged over 200 productions. Considered one of the country’s leading Spanish-language theatres, GALA brings Spanish and Latin American plays to the attention of the Spanish-speaking public in Washington D.C.

Sor Juana wrote the play when she was in her mid-thirties, at the height of her public acclaim. She would soon fall afoul of the Catholic Church, writing a fierce treatise defending the rights of women to be educated. The last two years of her life would be spent without studying, without books, without paper and pen—finally badgered into silence. That silence makes this play all the more important. Ultimately, it is about resistance. By leaving her father’s house without permission, Leonor has disobeyed. She has defied the commands of society and has followed her heart. Rather than being punished for attempting to elope with Carlos, at the end of the play she is rewarded. She and Carlos are reunited and are set to marry. The scheming Don Pedro and Ana do not get what they want. Pedro ends up alone, and Ana ends up with her old suitor, Don Juan de Vargas. Conniving isn’t rewarded. Disobedience—or obedience to one’s heart—is.

In the program note, director Hugo Medrano writes that the point of setting the production in Mexico of the 1940s is to highlight the machismo in society during that era. None of the events of the play—from concerns about women’s honor to the treatment of them as property to be negotiated among men—seem anachronistic. In Mexico today, even, certain states have laws that make prosecuting a rapist impossible if the rapist agrees to marry his victim, thus restoring her honor. An estimated sixty-seven percent of women are abused by spouses or lovers. A woman is raped every four minutes in Mexico and hundreds upon hundreds are murdered. Sor Juana spoke eloquently before the authorities of her era obtained her silence. Thanks to fearless and skillful productions like GALA’s, her words, still needed, ring out even now.

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