By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
A video image within the stage play Properties of Silence, a new work presented by About Productions at 2100 Square Feet, shows Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Rose Portillo) -- the 17th-century Mexican poet-nun-naturalist known as “the Phoenix of the Americas” -- pricking her finger in order to seal in blood a written promise to cease her scientific inquiries. (She had discovered that some patterns in nature are more chaotic than orderly -- and then said so in remarks the religious authorities found grating.) Sor Juana was something like a Mexican Galileo, who similarly learned how annoying the truth can be to people who run things, particularly when it intrudes upon dogma. “What I did, I did for love of knowledge,” she remarks late in the play.
Meanwhile, at the Knightsbridge Theater in Old Town Pasadena, the title character in Christopher Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus (played by Dwight Bacquie) says much the same thing. He likewise stabs his finger, but in order to sign in blood his legendary compact with the devil, granting him a life’s indulgence in black-magical powers, time travel (in which getting to kiss Helen of Troy is among the perks) and fame -- all in exchange for you know what. Of course, Faustus‘ blood is drawn to defy the religious authorities rather than to assuage them. Still, the destinies of these protagonists are strikingly similar. Both of them go south for their troubles -- Faustus into hell, Sor Juana into hellish silence -- and the guys in the black cloaks get their way in the end.
This harmonic convergence of the two plays, however, is deceptive; the attraction of opposites doesn’t make them any less opposite. For unlike Properties of Silence, Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus is a cautionary tale, an Elizabethan morality play in blank verse, built upon cemented layers of cause and effect -- like the old Italian proverb “You can have anything you want in this world, you just have to pay for it.” As the hour of the doctor’s death and doom approaches -- the entire play is funneled to that moment -- Marlowe‘s take upon the poor fellow’s despair is downright gleeful. Faustus shrieks bloody murder as his body is ripped asunder by demons. (That‘s what he gets for being such a smart-ass.) The following morning, his friends pull back his bed sheets, revealing a skeleton, the skull frozen in a scream. As one woman quipped to her husband while leaving the theater, “Don, let that be a lesson to you.”
On the other hand, Properties of Silence is about as far from Marlowe’s cause-and-effect architecture as Faustus is from heaven. Rather, it makes its points through the juxtaposition of images, rather like a poem or a dream. Sor Juana enters the world of a contemporary married couple, Barbara and Tom (Diane Robinson and Clay Wilcox), who live in Phoenix, Arizona. Or perhaps they enter her world. In either case, they wind up in the same playing space after Sor Juana descends from her upper cell, down the staircase of Douglas Ridgeway‘s two-tiered set. The play is built upon the intrusion of that 17th-century nun -- and her particular chaos theory -- upon the regimented habits of the female real estate agent and her swimming-pool-contractor husband. Through Sor Juana, the couple learn a lesson, of sorts, about being lost and found.
The play gets rolling when Barbara and Tom arrive home separately, each babbling into a cell phone, neglecting to kiss while talking past each other. Though their busy schedules give off the appearance of chaos, their lives and marriage are actually ordered to the point of incarceration. We understand this when Barbara mentions she took a different route home -- an error that seems to provide the impetus for her psychic unraveling. Enter Sor Juana and her proofs that nature works in some unbiblical, goofy ways. In one Stoppardian scene, she spreads flour on the kitchen table, then spins a top on it so that we see its trajectory carved into the flour -- not circles but ever-widening ellipses, until the top careens off the table’s surface. As Sor Juana puts it:
All these tiny, disorderly particles, floating,Infinitely filling the air.Circumferences barely noticeable except in a shaft of light.Each one has weight, shape and structure.Each one is a being unto itself.But each one has been a part of something -- A body, a mountain -- that‘s existed since the dawn of Creation.In a universe which tends toward greater and greater degrees of disorder, how does one maintain order?
It’s an understatement to say that the dramatic action in Properties of Silence is muted. Where Mephistopheles, bearing a contract from Lucifer, brings a looming suspense to Marlowe‘s melodrama, Sor Juana merely brings a few of her poems and that nifty scientific demonstration to Barbara and Tom’s kitchen table, under which she crouches for a while, sipping bottled water. (Everyone in the play is parched, a comic motif.) True, Tom doesn‘t really see Sor Juana’s blithe spirit, but then he doesn‘t really see his own wife, either. Nor does she see him, or even her own reflection in a mirror. In fact, every character and object in this work is on the verge of being a mirage -- a playful conceit that substitutes for a plot.