Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz is a 17th century Mexican nun, poet, playwright, scholar and feminist, worthy of scholarly and dramatic contemplation. But while she’s infinitely interesting, she’s also mysterious. To his credit, Nicholas Patricca’s biodrama, “The Defiant Muse,” takes bold steps to get inside its subject’s head, crafting a theatrical conceit in which Sor Juana writes scenes for and converses with the fictional Don Juan. It’s a puzzling choice, clever but also distracting, in a work that — even with the maverick seducer stepping forward to entertain — remains too subdued to enliven its broad range of ideas.
Patricca opens the play with a fanciful dialogue — and even more fanciful sword play — between Sor Juana (Lisa Tejero) and Don Juan (Dan Kenney). He establishes their fundamental commonality — the fact that in an age of conformity, they think for themselves.
From there, the playwright traces the basics of Sor Juana’s life. A voracious reader and gifted writer, she comes to the attention of a viceroy’s open-minded wife, Lisi (Dawn Alden), who becomes her best friend (with strong hints of deeper sexual feelings).
Sor Juana becomes a nun to seek protection from the dangers around her, but continues to find herself caught between the power of the church, embodied by manipulative and misogynistic priest Antonio Nunez de Miranda (Kenn E. Head), and the new age of scientific thought, in the form of astronomer Carlos de Siguenza y Gongora (Ricardo Gutierrez).
When Lisi leaves for Spain, Sor Juana finds both political protection and artistic encouragement from Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz (Desmin Borges), who ultimately betrays her.
There are clear moments of drama in the play — Sor Juana’s decision to enter the church following an attempted rape, her rejection of Nunez’s commands to stop having her work performed, and then her resistance to Fernandez’s sexual advances. But none of this feels particularly suspenseful, or even especially interesting. There’s a decided flatness both in Patricca’s writing — a certain tone of academic abstraction — and Andrea J. Dymond’s direction.
In the main role, Tejero puts forward a terrific sense of Sor Juana’s steely confidence and crafty wit, particularly once she dons a nun’s habit and must rely almost wholly on her eyes for expressiveness. But the play only really feels spirited when Kenney’s mischievous Don Juan appears.
The Don Juan sequences are interspersed throughout; the idea is that these are scenes written by Sor Juana which are being publicly performed. This is purely an invention on Patricca’s part, as Sor Juana never wrote about the character at all. But like her actual plays and poems, they create sources of conflict, and Patricca sees a deep thematic connection between Don Juan’s sense of self and Sor Juana’s understanding of self love.
That connection in “The Defiant Muse” seems pretty baffling, and while providing Sor Juana with an imaginary friend with whom to share her deepest self makes sense as an idea, it never pays off. In fact, it turns her into something of a supporting character, a troubling result for a play that seeks to elevate one of the era’s most extraordinary women.