The following theatre piece results from an invitation extended to One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre (OYR) to represent Canada at the cultural festival of the Guadalajara International Book Fair. The piece was workshopped as part of our three-week residency at Arizona State University , Phoenix . Hunger's Brides premiered in Guadalajara on December 1st, 1996, at the Teatro Experimental de Jalisco, the University of Guadalajara's principal experimental theatre. We then played two theatres in Mexico City, including the ‘Claustro,’the now deconsecrated convent where Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, the work's main historical figure, lived until her death in 1695. The Claustro has since become a university, named in her honour. Our international tour concluded with four consecutive performances at the Big Secret Theatre, Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts, as part of the High Performance Rodeo.
Hunger's Brides adapts a venerable and still widely-used form, known throughout the Spanish-speaking world as ‘teatro en atril ... literally, ‘lectern theatre.’Reader's theatre, then, with lights, costumes, sets, music and actors. The main departure from traditional theatre is the on-stage presence of the script. But because movement is integral to the OYR performance style, the actors were more or less "off-book" -- that is, speaking from memory. So, the scripts and lecterns served chiefly as set pieces reinforcing the play's central conceit: its presentation in the form of a book. This struck us as having particular interest for the International Book Fair's audiences (plus the work is in fact based on a novel-in-progress).
Scenes appear under chapter headings. The concluding ‘chapter’takes the form of an Aztec codex, or ‘painted book.’ As a concept, the Aztec codex nicely undermines the European distinction between writing for the page and writing for the stage: the painted book was seen merely as the score or notation for a performance incorporating not just text but movement, colour, scent, sound-effects and calendrical influences.
Hunger's Brides is an experiment in "inter-culturality," a term here used in contrast to ‘translation.’Translation, fundamentally, is an attempt to tell the same, or equivalent, story in two languages. Our goal was to use the same performance structure to tell distinct, though related, stories to different communities. Language groups are only the most obvious of these. The performance runs along a series of counterpoints: Spanish / English; male / female; present / past; Canada / Mexico ... Audience members will experience the interplay among these oppositions differently.
About twenty percent of the running time is in Spanish. Of this, only a small fraction directly repeats, or translates, what is being said in English. In terms of exposition, the English text supplies information on the poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and her (fictional) Canadian biographer. In contrast, since Sor Juana's story is well known to Spanish speakers, the Spanish text serves two quite different ends: one, it creates a contextual bridge for scenes performed mostly in English; two, it focusses on themes of specific interest to Spanish speakers.
As it opens, the scene "Writing Paz" provides an example: while the Canadian narrator is giving English speakers the antecedents of Sor Juana's final silence, the Mexican narrator is comparing Sor Juana's estrangement from the Archbishop of Mexico to present-day tension between another great Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, and Mexico's current Archbishop.
As with much of OYR's work, the show was built to tour -- sets stripped to a bare minimum, simple costumes. Most of the performers took on two roles. This doubling of actors proved so effective that we now consider it virtually indispensable. For example, having one actor play both Donald, Beulah's philandering teacher, and Carlos, Sor Juana's scholarly companion and Antonia's teacher, brings to light certain possibilities. It completes Donald's character arc in the sense of fictions as History's might-have-beens ... or, if you will, in the Eastern sense of spiritual development crossing more than one lifespan. In Carlos, we readily see the teacher and the man Donald might have been. Doubling is also an elegant way of suggesting pattern —-- one actor playing Silvio, the seducer, and Father Núñez, the fisher of souls; another actor playing Beulah, the modern biographer, and Antonia, literary secretary and unrequited lover.
A special case of this is María. As a character she has some ‘history’with Donald, which sheds light on his personal and professional misconduct with Beulah. Donald presents the book, and represents himself to the audience as its editor. As the play's narrator, María broadens the frame. In doing so, she ‘takes back’a story he had appropriated from Beulah. María makes him the target of her ire and the butt of her irony. Interestingly, until a breakthrough at the end, when he as a character gives way to Carlos, Donald does not acknowledge her. Does he speak Spanish, can he even hear her? Is he ignoring her in the way men sometimes do, or in the way we ignore our conscience?
María knows things, as narrators do. And as narrators will, she weaves easily back and forth through time and space. When Donald does in the end acknowledge her, realistically it can only be as the voice of his conscience. But in another sense, it is acknowledgment of her as the voice of our humanity, winding back and forth through time ... defying physics, as our imaginations will.
Blake Brooker, Paul Anderson