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.
But to ignore dramatic action in the American theater of the 21st century is as risky as making borscht without beets. Co-writers Theresa Chavez, Portillo and Alan Pulner gamble everything on the integrity and resonance of their ideas. That this one-hour play, with videography by Janice Tanaka, is so affecting is a testament to any number of things: snappy performances, the force of the authors’ intelligence and wit, their potent lyrical sense, and director B.J. Dodge‘s remarkable ability to carve a theatrical shape out of the event.
That Tom dons a black cape to morph into Sor Juana’s persecutor plays as a rather uncharitable comment upon his marriage to Barbara. Thank goodness Wilcox brings his surfer-boy charm to the roles, and for Robinson‘s wry impishness as Barbara, and that Portillo’s performance balances Sor Juana‘s grim, martyred rectitude with a quick smile and elfin dashes across the stage. Thank goodness, also, the play is about something larger than the shape of one marriage: metaphysics micro and macro, for example, and the shapes of history and politics.
In Chekhov’s turn-of-the-century The Seagull, young playwright Konstantin — in the wake of a disastrous reception of his new poetical play — remarks upon the need for fresh forms in the theater, forms that can connect disparate spheres of ideas into new insights about who we are and what we‘re doing here. Properties of Silence has to be the kind of play he was talking about.
Carolee Shoemaker’s direction of Doctor Faustus on the Knightsbridge Theater‘s bare stage is, in contrast, an entirely retro affair, with a kind of antique charm. Imagine stepping into a 19th-century combination rep, where the supporting players are on staff while the company has imported the star. Bacquie does the kind of take on Faustus that Olivier did with Hamlet — in style, at least. It’s a blustery performance, beautifully spoken to every last consonant, that leaves the actor drenched in sweat — declamatory to the point of parody, but in the 19th century that might not have been a problem.
I found myself relishing the words, and believing not a single iota of the emotions by which they were propelled. Michael Kellick tries a laid-back Mephistopheles, probably an attempt at comedic counterpoint; instead, it lands him in some play by Sam Shepard. Yet there he stands in Elizabethan garb, slumping and galumphing, rolling his eyes at Faustus‘ pristine posture and articulation. (At least Abbott and Costello were of the same world.)
Then there are the young supporting players, whose earnest attempts at slapstick wind up splattered on the floor. Redeeming moments come from Ellen Marie Andrews’ Helen of Troy, a creeping monument holding a mask inches from its face; she has no words, but Andrews knows how to move across a stage with what they call presence.
The Knightsbridge is a tiny basement venue, and it‘s regrettable that somebody thought the company could do justice to a legend of this magnitude with the actors virtually bumping their heads on the ceiling. Doctor Faustus is a play that needs room to breathe. Still, Shoemaker’s endeavor, far from slovenly, is well-paced, and pays attention to Renaissance detail — masks and costumes, impressive special effects (a chopped-off head, the aforementioned skeleton).
Yet the production‘s feel is so cheesy. The walls are lined with black drapes, behind which a black gloved hand occasionally protrudes to deliver a needed prop or to flip the page of a book Faustus is reading. This is partly in jest, to ward off pretentiousness — gestures that confuse flippancy with wit. Marlowe’s lush drama really can‘t absorb these without taking on the satirical edge of a play by Christopher Durang or Woody Allen. Which raises the questions of why they wanted to stage Marlowe’s play at all, and what they thought they were doing with it.