Review: "La Monja Alférez" Presents a Triumphant 17-Century Tale of Gender Identity

La Monja Alférez (The Lieutenant Nun)

Written by Juan Ruiz de Alarcón

Adapted by Daniel Alonso de Santos and Germán Vega García-Luengos

Directed by Daniel Alonso de Santos

Presented by Teatro Círculo at the Chain Theatre

312 W 36th St., 3rd fl., Manhattan, NYC

November 3-19, 2023

Mario Mattei, María Fontanals, and Pablo Andrade. Photo by Israel Franco Müller
In the plays of William Shakespeare, the most prominent English-language playwright of the early modern period, changes in gender presentation are primarily undertaken under duress, as a protective measure (think As You Like It, for instance), and the associated transgressiveness is contained by slotting those involved into heterosexual marriages by the plays' ends. Viola may, for example, remain in men's attire at the end of Twelfth Night, but this is not an active choice, and she is herself headed for marriage with Duke Orsino. The 17th-century Spanish-language play La Monja Alférez (The Lieutenant Nun), by Mexican-born playwright Juan Ruiz de Alarcón (c. 1581-1639), in contrast, features a protagonist who not only actively chooses a gender identity other than the one dictated by birth and family but fights tenaciously to keep it. Teatro Círculo, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary, has returned La Monja Alférez to the stage in a terrific new production, in Spanish with English surtitles, that highlights the play's unabated relevance and surprisingly nuanced treatment of queerness.
Sandra Gumuzzio as Doña Ana. Photo by Israel Franco Müller
While there is some scholarly disagreement over the life and memoir of the historical Lieutenant Nun, born Catalina de Erauso in either 1585 or 1592, the play presents us with a title character who has already achieved an impressive record as a soldier, having escaped from a convent and assumed a male gender presentation, now known as Guzmán (María Fontanals) and in requited love with the beautiful noblewoman Doña Ana (Sandra Gumuzzio). Guzmán's living as he wishes is complicated by his father and by his brother, Miguel de Erauso (Pablo Andrade), both of whom care more for their family's honor than for Guzmán's wishes and the latter of whom is actively searching for Guzmán; Don Diego (Gerardo Gudiño), a friend who becomes a romantic rival; and the Nuevo Cid (Mario Mattei), whose honor Guzmán insults by besting him physically; and further complications come with Guzmán's desire to keep secret his sex assigned at birth and to continue to pursue martial exploits. Guzmán's servant Machín (Fernando Gazzaniga) and Doña Ana's servant Inés (Eva Cristina Vásquez) have a mostly humorous subplot that itself arcs towards romance - as the play itself points out, it is a comedy, after all - and all of these narrative threads are cleverly framed as a tale heard in Peru (the site of some of Guzmán's military adventuring) and now being recounted by a singer-musician (Jei Fabiano) in a New York City piano bar.
Gerardo Gudiño as Don Diego. Photo by Israel Franco Müller
The play unfolds - in titled chapters introduced by the musician - on a basically bare stage, keeping the focus on the verse and the laudable performances. These focal points are enhanced by the splendid costuming and atmospheric lighting (the use of red light and slow-motion movement in one fight scene comes to mind), as well as by creative use of the performance space outside of the stage proper and of live musical accompaniment, which sometimes punctuates the action in a manner that evokes the live backing of a silent movie or melodrama. Fabiano, who also composed the production's original music, is a joy to watch, Fontanals ranges compellingly from defiant to tender as Guzmán, and Mattei, aggressively vainglorious as the Nuevo Cid, has a very funny turn as Sebastián de Illumbre (and his bird).
Jei Fabiano as the Musician. Photo by Israel Franco Müller
La Monja Alférez engages with some of the issues common to the drama of its period, such as conflicts between state and religion, the often corrosive effects of honor and its policing of sexuality, among other behaviors, and, relatedly, the disjunctions between martial and domestic ideals, seen in how the attitudes that render Guzmán a good warrior cause havoc in his private life; but what is less common is how the play also keeps gender identity at its center. And in connection to that center, this production ends with a meta gesture beyond the bounds of the play and of the theater space. La Monja Alférez can seem surprisingly progressive for its time, from Guzmán sharing both a balcony scene and a bittersweet farewell with Doña Ana - scenes invested with nuance by Gumuzzio - to Don Diego trying to do right by his friend even after he knows his secret, to how the Viceroy (Pablo Andrade) ultimately reacts to Guzmán and his desire to continue living as a man. La Monja Alférez, then, goes further than just holding a 17th-century mirror to our current times; in that mirroring, it also pushes us to do and to be better.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


Popular posts from this blog

Review: The Immersive "American Blues: 5 Short Plays by Tennessee Williams" Takes Audiences on a Marvelously Crafted Journey

Review: From Child Pose to Stand(ing) Up: "Yoga with Jillian" and "Penguin in Your Ear" at the Women in Theatre Festival

Review: Nancy Redman’s "A Séance with Mom" Conjures Mother-Daughter Hilarity and Love