Review: "Sonnets from a Sin-Eater" Approaches 21st-Century Problems through 17th-Century Forms

Sonnets from a Sin-Eater

Written and performed by Kara Hadden

Directed by Jack McAuliffe

Presented by La Trobe at UNDER St. Marks

94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NYC

April 4-19, 2024

Kara Hadden. Photo by Aaron Petykowski
Demonstrating perhaps more than anything the hold the sonnet has on contemporary American poetry, Sonnets from a Sin-Eater is a one-person show highlighting the impact of social media, celebrity, canceling, and fad diets on present-day society, with the occasional light-hearted jab at the “woke agenda.” Kara Hadden deftly plays the roles of K, a recent college grad struggling from a break-up with her long-term girlfriend as well as the death of her family pet; Calgary, a musical artist perpetually getting canceled; and a poet-nun, writer of the titular sonnets. Sonnets from a Sin-Eater is part of the 2024 New York City Fringe Festival, which features 46 plays over multiple venues and gives 100% of its ticket sales to its artists.

According to K, sin-eating is an ancient ritual, “older than Jesus,” though she adopts a version from seventeenth-century Wales. It involves eating a meal off the chest of a dead person in order to absorb their sins, thus allowing them to go to heaven unencumbered by their earthly wrongdoings. Within the play, K’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to raise money to fund a surgery for her beloved family dog prompt her to engage in sin-eating not with the dead, but with high-profile living people who need to purge themselves of wrong-doing to save their reputations and careers, thus making them willing to pay K large sums of money. Calgary is one such figure, appearing on the screen at the back of the stage in what are supposed to be FaceTime calls. While K and Calgary develop feelings for one another, Calgary’s opportunistic creation of a sex tape to use in a music video ultimately ends the nascent relationship.
Kara Hadden. Photo by Aaron Petykowski
Interspersed between K’s live social media stream explaining how she began to engage in the practice of sin-eating and the flashbacks to her conversations with Calgary are appearances of a poet-nun whose Shakespearean sonnets appear on the screen behind her. The identity of the poet is somewhat opaque; K’s college ex-girlfriend, who suffers from an eating disorder, has gone off the grid and entered a convent, so perhaps the nun is supposed to be based on her character and her lingering influence on K’s life. However, it is K who engages in the sin-eating, the taking on of other’s sins, which is what seems to inspire the tortured desire expressed in the sonnets. While sin-eating is hardly a Catholic practice, perhaps the guilt that K assumes from Calgary and her other clients connects her to a self-abnegating religious figure who writes to exorcize demons.

If the play’s framework is a bit indecipherable, Hadden’s convincing performance in all three roles, the creative use of pre-recorded videos to allow K and Calgary to appear together on stage, and the evocation of the sonnet tradition were all strengths that carried the production. Indeed, the sonnets themselves, Shakespearean in their rhyme scheme and innovatory in content, might have featured even more prominently in the production, as it was a bit of a challenge to read, absorb, and connect them to the rest of the play before they disappeared from the screen. Nonetheless, this innovative production created the space for contemplation on a number of troubling contemporary social norms.

-Stephanie Pietros


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