House of Desires
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 9, 2006
House of Desires, the latest theatrical treasure to be uncovered for New Yorkers by Storm Theatre, was written in 1685 by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun. It's a pure delight, pretty much from start to finish; though I can't say exactly what I was expecting Sor Juana to have come up with, this intoxicating blend of romantic comedy, farce, and class satire certainly wasn't it. In the hands of director Peter Dobbins and his skilled ensemble, it's the surprise comedy hit of the season.
The story is very complicated. Don Pedro, a rich nobleman, is in love with Dona Leonor, a brilliant, beautiful, but poor noblewoman. Dona Leonor doesn't love Don Pedro, though; she loves Don Carlos, another rich nobleman, who ardently loves her right back. On the night that Carlos and Leonor elope, Pedro contrives to have Carlos detained by a pair of official-looking fellows who arrest him; one of them brings Leonor to Pedro's home (though she doesn't know that that's where she is), Pedro's plan being to woo Leonor on his own turf.
Meanwhile, Pedro's sister, the beautiful and spoiled Donna Ana, has set her sights on Don Carlos; however, as we have seen, Carlos is in love with Leonor. Don Juan, a friend of Don Pedro, is in love with Ana, and believes that she is in love with him. When Don Carlos turns up unexpectedly at the house, just a few minutes after Leonor's arrival, Ana begins to hatch her own scheme to win the man of her choice. Don Juan, of course, is also on hand.
I told you it was complicated: this all happens in approximately the first fifteen minutes of the play. The remainder follows the machinations of Ana and Pedro, along with others engineered by Don Rodrigo, Leonor's greedy father, and the inevitable servants—Ana's maid Celia and Carlos's valet Castano.
The plot spins out over a three day period during which identities are constantly being mistaken; arrangements, compromises, and feuds are continually being undertaken in the name of this or that person's honor; and a number of swordfights and chases (often in the dark) transpire. At one point, Carlos and Leonor actually exit Don Pedro's house together, which has clearly been their objective all along (made difficult due to the fact that the doors almost always seem to be locked), except Carlos thinks he's got Ana with him rather than Leonor and never actually bothers to check out this incorrect supposition.
At another point, Castano dresses up in Leonor's clothes, bringing to mind first Charley's Aunt and, later, Some Like It Hot (it actually seems as though Don Pedro and Castano might wind up together—this is very risque and forward-thinking stuff for 1685!).
Miraculously and hilariously, everything gets sorted out by the end, but not before we've been thoroughly diverted by a set of twisty, turny scenarios that are as improbable as they are breathless. Sor Juana's main idea here, apart from giving the audience a splendid time, is to give upper-class privilege a well-deserved come-uppance, and that mission is nicely accomplished in bravura high style.
In choosing House of Desires, Dobbins has given his actors a wonderful and rare opportunity to create roles in an excellent but hitherto unknown play. So men and women who usually ply their skills "reviving" Shakespeare and Moliere here get to sink their teeth into larger-than-life characters wrought by a playwright who was obviously familiar with both of those exemplars but cheerily went her own way, disregarding the standards of any existing theatrical form to make something very original and very much her own. Discovering this extraordinary talent is the first of the many pleasures available to audience members in this House of Desires.
The others come from Dobbins's expert staging, which blends the rigors of classical farce with broad slapstick; everyone on stage has a keen sense of fun and a well-developed sense of the foolish lengths to which lovers will go in the name of honor and to which scoundrels will go in the name of money. (There are plenty of both figuring in this story.)
The entire cast delivers fine performances, with Gabriel Vaughan and Caitlin Mulhern beautifully earnest and lovelorn as Carlos and Leonor and Jessica Myhr and Christopher Kale Jones expertly smug and manipulative as Ana and Pedro. Amanda Cronk does the soubrette thing as witty, devious Celia to a tee; Josh Vasquez has some terrific show-stopping moments as Castano, particularly once he dons Leonor's drag. Also threatening to steal scenes from time to time are Jamil Mena as a superbly klutzy Don Juan and Michael Daly as a supremely grasping Don Rodrigo. Daly serves triple duty here, by the way, providing some very exciting fight choreography that gets as close to the front rows of the audience as possible without risking dire injury, and also forming a chorus (with Jennifer Cannon, Mark Cajigao, and Natasha Harper) to sing the show's one song, a dirge of a love ballad that, in these hands, becomes a grand musical comedy turn. (The music is supplied by Skip Hennon.)
The Storm Theatre has outdone itself in terms of physical production, with Todd Edward Ivins providing a gorgeous and versatile unit set and Erin Murphy offering opulent and appropriate costumes, all well above expectations for a $19 ticket. Scott O'Brien's sound and Michael Abrams's lighting complete the environment expediently.
House of Desires has made me eager to sample more of the works of this apparently quite remarkable 17th century nun. Meantime, if light-hearted romantic comedy appeals, hasten to this production. I think you'll have a really lovely time.