By Sheri Flanders and Josh Flanders
With Blood With Ink is a 90-minute opera in English about the tragic life of 17th century nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. As an orphan who was raised by a wealthy patroness, Sor Juana was blessed with a remarkable gift for poetry and became a notable progressive thinker of her time, advocating for the education of women and espousing extraordinarily progressive religious and feminist viewpoints. Her writings began to upset the conservative order of nuns she belonged to and the male leadership of the church began to aggressively confront Sor Juana about her blasphemy of modern thought. The opera is framed by the older, dying Sor Juana, reflecting upon her life through the lens of wisdom.
Here are our post-show thoughts on the Third Eye Theatre Ensemble’s current production:
Josh: The Prop Thtr’s loft setup is very inviting. It adds to the intimacy to see a show in such a small space, making the action and the music close and personal. From the moment the large steel door slides into place, you are in a special place apart from the world. And trapped.
Sheri: 90 minutes without intermission is no joke for those with small bladders.
Josh: For lovers of opera, and short opera, this is a treat. (The last opera I saw was five-and-a-half hours long.)
Sheri: This was actually my first live opera, and I was reminded of a play we saw in Paris. We don’t speak French, and the play was very abstract, on a rotating stage with shutters that kept opening and closing–
Josh: To occasionally reveal a live goat–
Sheri: And when we asked our host, Pierre-Louis, what it all meant, he said “It doesn’t make sense in French either.” And that is what I would say to anyone who might be afraid to experience opera. Don’t be afraid to come to the show just because you don’t speak the “language” of opera. Experiencing and enjoying is learning.
Josh: Just think “soap opera,” and that’s exactly what you get: A dramatic storyline about a woman with intelligence and ambition who is held down by the man – plus a lot of singing. The music is powerful, with the exception of just a few “plot summary” moments which feel choppy. There is a beautiful scene where Young Juana (gloriously portrayed by Gisella Milla Adams), Dying Juana (Hillary Esqueda) and Padre Antonio (Jesus Alfredo Jimenez Jimenez) all sing as a trio about their differing opinions of what God means.
Sheri: That scene is enormously moving, however I was frustrated because I couldn’t quite make out the exact words that Young Juana was singing within the well-executed complex vocal layering. Even as an Atheist, I am enamored by the gorgeous poetry of the lyrics – there are so many beautifully crafted phrases such as her assertion that “God is a circle whose center lies in all things, giving us our dignity.” That is a fairly pedestrian religious platitude today, but in Sor Juana’s time was scandalous and innovative.
Josh: Sor Juana’s life is dedicated to reading and writing, and very quickly her life is dominated by dichotomy – on one side the Christian faith, male dominated, an ever-judging God, and the cross – on the other side, Sor Juana, seeing God “as a circle,” driven by reason, and often saying that God is inside of her. She is quite happy reconciling these two very different parts of her: faith and reason. But guess who’s not? Padre Antonio!
Sheri: DUN DUN DUN! Padre Antonio is wonderfully awful as the patriarchal buzzkill. Sometimes in plays with strong feminist themes, male characters are flattened to one-dimensional monstrous stereotypes. Thanks to the historical scaffolding and the talents of the writer, director and actors, the Padre’s motivations are layered; wanting to control Juana for God, for pride, for ambition and envy. I also appreciate that the female characters are the focus and that there is a positive and nurturing relationship depicted between Sor Juana and her Patroness Maria Luisa (beautifully sung and performed by Angela Born). The entire cast works well together to bring this refreshingly unique story to life with their exceptionally beautiful voices, buoyed by a thoughtful and complex score.
Josh: Sor Juana wants to learn and be a nun (mostly because it allows her a life of writing). This 17th century nun’s life seems strangely important in a world where women’s education is still being repressed by men.
Sheri: It breaks my heart that this historical story is still so painfully relevant to our modern lives. “Why must I be less than a man?” she asks. The world is still ill equipped to handle a woman’s potential. Watching Dying Juana making peace with her shortcomings – through no fault of her own – but through the betrayal and cowardice of others, is powerful. How does a woman or any person truly make peace with knowing that they didn’t get a fair shake in life?
Though this story is tragic indeed, ultimately it is a story of triumph and transcendence. The subtleties of stories of internal journeys can be very difficult to pull off theatrically, but this one is effective. Opera is uniquely well-equipped to illustrate and dramatize the gentle arc of the simple private struggles of mind and heart. Some stories about a person crumbling under the weight of the world can feel exploitative, but this one feels triumphant. Many people were moved to vocalize their feelings through laughter or gasps. At least once, I had to stop myself from giving a rousing “Hell yeah! Stick it to the man!” Pretty sure that isn’t appropriate opera etiquette.
Josh: Indeed, Sor Juana’s attitude throughout all her struggles is ultimately hopeful, and the vigor with which she returns to her desk, with a smile of freedom from expressing her thoughts in her writing, elevates the audience’s emotions and leaves everyone with hope. Her struggle survives, and her words survive, to help remind us that the struggle continues:
You foolish men who lay
the guilt on women,
not seeing you’re the cause
of the very thing you blame
– “Redondillas” – Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz
Third Eye Theatre Ensemble presents “With Blood, With Ink” through November 5 at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Clint Funk.