Oh, what a tangled web we weave! The brilliant cast of GALA Hispanic Theatre’s Casa de Empeños (House of Desires) had the audience in stitches at last night’s official opening, as they wove their way in – and out – of a rather complex love triangle. Producing Artistic Director and Founder Hugo Medrano masterfully directs this take on a Spanish Golden Age comedy of errors, breathing new life into it with a modern twist and Mexican flair.
Casa de Empeños was written in the 17th century by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, widely known as a Quixotic literary master of the era and a pioneer for women’s rights. GALA’s production is staged in Mexico 300 years later. Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi transports us to a grand hacienda framed by tall, carved columns and heavy wooden doors that open onto a romantic terra cotta porch where the story unravels.
Medrano says he has a personal preference for more contemporary pieces, but for GALA, he finds that most of his work is devoted to the classics. Incorporating a sense of the vociferous and rhythmic style of the iconic western films of 1940s Mexico was his answer to modernizing this piece for its DC premiere.
“Sor Juana wanted the women to be very strong characters, against the machismo of the patriarchal society of the times,” Medrano says.
It seems he couldn’t have chosen a better cast.
Thoroughly bored with her homely suitor Don Juan (Oscar Ceville), the aristocratic Doña Ana (Natalia Miranda-Guzmán) has set her wide eyes upon the dashing Carlos (Erick Sotomayor), but when Leonor (Alina Collins Maldonado), a lovely woman of poor but noble blood, turns up at her door, she quickly learns that Carlos is already very-much spoken for.
As fate would have it, Doña Ana’s brother, Don Pedro (Mauricio Pita), is madly in love with Leonor, and he’s not willing to give her up without a fight. A hilarious case of mistaken identities ensues as the love-crazed suitors pull every stop to end up in the arms of their beloved, while the strong-willed dames seek to escape the imposing clutches of domesticity.
Luz Nicolás steals the show as Celia, Doña Ana’s scheming housekeeper who ends up in the arms of Castaño (Carlos Castillo), who, in a last-ditch effort to save the day, pulls off a hoot of a cross-dressing antic. Roberto Colmenares seems made for the role of the noble, yet disapproving father. Crooners Miguel Alejandro Amaguaña and Hector Diaz are like icing on the cake, offering up a lovely serenade of de la Cruz’s “No es tal, si es tal” (It’s not so, it is so).
“It’s a very funny piece, with some audacious things that you can’t believe were written in the 17th century,” Medrano says. “Sor Juana became a nun, not because she was a fanatic of the religion, but to be able to write and express her mind. It was the only escape for women at that time.”
In creating his own version of the classic, Medrano says the challenges lay in converting the language from Old Castilian, and making the cuts.
“Sor Juana was was a philosopher and essayist, so some of her works are very heavy in terms of what she wants to say,” he says. “She wanted to say so many things, poor woman – that you have to cut a lot of things and – not soften – but make less brutal.”
Also, 17th century Spanish theater was an all-day event, so adapting the extended versions becomes a labor of love.
“In that sense, I love to work on that,” Medrano says.
GALA (Grupo de Artists Latinoamericanos), a National Center for Latino Performing Arts, is in its 39th season. Since its founding, GALA has produced more than 200 plays and musicals in Spanish and English.
Casa de Empeños (House of Desires) plays through Sunday, March 1, 2015 at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 234-7174, or purchase them online.