The artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) is celebrated for creating work emblematic of Mexican indigenous traditions and the female experience. Lesser known but no less impressive is the life and work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), a scholar and poet whose defense of women’s intellectual rights and education against the Catholic church has made her a national icon of Mexico.
Although separated by two centuries, these great minds get a chance to meet in “Cintas de Seda,” presented by the Aguijón Theater Company as part of the Destinos Fifth International Latino Theater Festival of Chicago. Written by award-winning Cuban playwright, Norge Espinosa Mendoza, and directed by Aguijón Theater ensemble member, Sándor Menéndez, the play is performed in Spanish with English supertitles.
At a desolate hospital resides three figures: La Pintora (The Painter) is a stand-in for Kahlo; likewise, La Monja (The Nun) is an archetype of Sor Juana, while El Doctor acts as the antagonist who attempts to keep the two women apart.
La Pintora (Rosario Vargas), like Kahlo, suffers from chronic and debilitating pain that tethers her to a gray and dingy hospital room while the public celebrates her work at prestigious art galleries. La Monja (Claudia Rentería), like Sor Juana, lives in a prison of her own making, choosing to live isolated from patriarchal society.
El Doctor (Marcopolo Soto) serves as a metaphor for the patriarchy, denying the concerns of La Pintora about overly invasive surgeries and chastising La Monja for her propensity to write. Drawn together by their shared feelings of dehumanization, the two women pontificate about deep existential and metaphysical questions—“Maybe God is a woman like me?”
Vargas is a smoldering fire with the occasional splash of gasoline. Although confined to a wheelchair and bound in a body harness, a surreal dream sequence has her ditching the devices and launching into a danse macabre, wrapping herself in a giant red flag bearing the hammer and sickle, the symbol of proletarian unity.
On the other end of the spectrum, Rentería plays with a subdued and nuanced energy, like a bomb with a burning wick. She begins stoic, then gradually melts into a radical. The removal of her nun’s veil is poignant, earned and satisfying.
Soto as El Doctor is half paternal hard-ass and half puckish imp. During business hours, he has an air of “father knows best.” Later, experiencing a breakdown, he devolves into a giggling ghoul, crawling bare-chested around the floor, a large silver crucifix dangling from his neck.
The bare set is augmented by an opaque back wall scrim that is intermittently made sheer to reveal haunting, real-life recreations of Kahlo’s work. For the Kahlo and Sor Juana superfans, there is a satisfying amount of easter eggs. The chilling final image is sure to follow you out of the theater and lurk in your memory for days.
“Cintas de Seda” brings Kahlo and Sor Juana to life in spectacular detail. The heavily researched soliloquies written for the characters by Mendoza are immaculate, albeit lengthy. Menéndez creates a cloistered atmosphere that expertly matches the mood of two genius talents exiled in isolation. Combined with the powerful performances of the cast, “Cintas de Seda” both educates and entertains.
“Cintas de Seda” at the Aguijón Theater, 2707 North Laramie, (773)637-5899, aguijontheater.org, $12-$35. Through November 20.