“Las Horas de Belén–A Book of Hours”

Mabou Mines

In a chapel at the heart of Mexico City, a portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the proto-feminist seventeenth-century poet known as the “Tenth Muse,” hangs high on a plain white wall. Just outside, in the adjoining churchyard, a low maze of ruins is all that remains of the cloister where Sor Juana (1651–95) once lived. Throughout this beautiful but moldering city, Juana’s image is a constant presence, curiously at odds with the country’s entrenched tradition of machismo; her discerning gaze adorns banknotes, decorates cafés, and looks out from murals chronicling Mexican colonial history. At the age of forty-two, Sor Juana sold off her 4,000-volume library and distributed her money among the poor. Signing a blood oath, she renounced all worldly contact; two years later, while caring for her plague-ridden sister nuns, she died.

When Las Horas de Belén—A Book of Hours, the most recent piece by the New York theater company Mabou Mines, premiered at Mexico City’s Festival del Centro Histórico (a pan-arts event intended in part to help revitalize the megalopolis’s decaying core), the Claustro de Sor Juana provided an evocative site for a work that unravels other anguished histories. For thirty years, Mabou Mines has created startling theater, hybrid visions finessed from elements as various as Beckett texts, doo-wop music, and Japanese bunraku puppetry. As conceptualized and directed by Ruth Maleczech, a co-founder of Mabou Mines (together with Lee Breuer, JoAnne Akalaitis, David Warrilow, and Philip Glass), Las Horas is a book of uncommon prayer, conjuring up the ghosts of Belén, the notoriously brutal Mexico City prison that was founded, in 1683, as a church-run sanctuary for women (which was itself run much like a prison). Echoes of Belén’s horrific past and the sanctioned subjugation of women reverberate in the present. In Las Horas, Belén’s layered history is conveyed in a suite of twelve poems by American writer Catherine Sasanov. Her harsh, exquisite verses have been sensitively translated into Spanish by Luz Aurora Pimentel and Albert Blanco and translated again, into voluptuous song, by Liliana Felipe, an Argentine-born composer. In performance, Felipe is stunning; dressed in an antique mariachi suit and possessed of a gimlet-eyed grandeur, she accompanies herself on piano and sings, with blazing intensity, an original song cycle that draws freely on traditions ranging from the plaintive sentimentality of ranchera style to the brisk whirl of the waltz, from the syncopated rhythms of danzon to the sacred tones of Gregorian chant.

Las Horas unfolds through a spellbinding synthesis of words, music, movements, light, shadows, and images. An “illuminated” book of hours, the English texts appear as slides projected on a “screen” of white rebozos. Designed by Julie Archer, the lighting and visual setting are as potent as apparitions: bars of brilliant light define an intangible but inescapable prison; a niche is crammed with the broken hands of plaster saints; an overhead projector casts an image of puddling water, blue light spreading inexorably across the backdrop. Against a makeshift wall assembled from flattened tins, corrugated cardboard, and broken-down crates, a woman—wearing a muslin shift, her hair braided in the Frida Kahloesque style of Tehuantepec—appears like a beseeching figure in an ex-voto painting. The woman (Jesusa Rodríguez, an actress and the artistic director of Mexico City’s political cabaret El Hábito) performs without speaking. Her charged movements (compared by Maleczech to Soviet avantgardist Vsevelod Meyerhold’s innovative biomechanics and by Rodríguez to the organic motion of plants growing before one’s eyes in time-lapse nature documentaries) articulate essential human conditions. Rodríguez’s eloquent body and face vent fragile desires and merciless rage. She swaggers, juggling a knife and keeping time to a rousing corrido with her contemptuous gestures. In a shadow play, she is raped by the boss man, a looming overcoat swirling ominously above her.

Las Horas transforms in our presence. On five occasions, scenes are interrupted by what Maleczech has termed “outbursts.” Written in prose by Sasanov, the outbursts are delivered by an actress (Isela Vega) in contemporary dress. Her voice has a fierce clarity as she unleashes litanies of intolerable fates: of nuns who make five-mile pilgrimages pacing within the confines of their cells; of wealthy unmarried women dying in childbirth, unidentifiable because of the veils demurely obscuring their faces; and of poor women dying as “mules,” crossing the border with drugs secreted inside their bodies.

The powerful images and sounds of Las Horas accumulate, play back in the mind, and take hold. In one scene, an Indian woman (Rodríguez) dusts her face with flour until she turns white as a sugar skull for the Day of the Dead. A sound repeats, a photo flash, an echo of hollow thunder, a recurring plea against death.

“Secret behind secret, veil behind veil—not seven of them, but eight, twelve, thirty, fifty!” reminisced Sergei Eisenstein in rapturous praise of the work of Meyerhold, the man he called his “spiritual father.” Secret behind secret, in the Cloister of Sor Juana, the very rich, unsettling hours of Belén are revealed.

Susan Morgan is a critic living in Los Angeles.