In "Properties of Silence," an intriguing hourlong dreamscape from About Productions, 17th century rebel and literary troublemaker Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz leaves her own world to visit a brave if deeply flawed new one: late 20th century Phoenix, land of real estate mavens and swimming pool peddlers.
Something is off here. The "vital mainspring of the human clock," as Sor Juana puts it, needs repair.
In Phoenix, real estate agent Barbara (Diane Robinson) arrives home from an open house, her cell phone glued to her ear. En route she has lost her way, in more ways than one. Nothing appears quite right. It's hotter than usual, even, and she's hearing things. Barbara's on the verge of an inner explosion.
Her husband, Tom (Clay Wilcox), a pool salesman, comes home not long afterward, likewise yakking on a cell phone. Their fridge holds only a defensive clump of spring-water bottles. At one point, after sniping at each other, wife and husband stand side by side, glugging down water from their respective plastic containers. It's a bizarrely funny image.
Maybe Sor Juana (Rose Portillo, also one of the play's authors) dreams her way into the woman's imagination; maybe it's Barbara who does the dreaming. Barbara falls asleep while watching a docudrama on Sor Juana (footage created by videographer Janice Tanaka), the nun who wrote the seminal feminist tract "La Respuesta"--a plea for the intellectual emancipation of the women of colonial Mexico. Then Sor Juana appears in the flesh, at the foot of the sofa. For Barbara, she acts as a kind of spiritual guide, a playmate and a reminder that list-keeping gets you only so far in this life.
Directed by B.J. Dodge, "Properties of Silence" floats between centuries, its characters spinning in odd, recurring orbits of self-discovery. Wilcox takes a second role, that of Sor Juana's adversary, intent on getting her to sign "a confession of frailty and fault." Her pen, he says, must be silenced. This power play echoes the more passive-aggressive struggle undermining Barbara and Tom.
At its best, the text by Theresa Chavez, Portillo and Alan Pulner recalls the delicacy and purpose of Maria Irene Fornes ("Fefu and Her Friends"). It's not always up to that level. The 17th century exchanges especially are saddled with rejoinders such as "Your quest for knowledge places your salvation in jeopardy." (With his surfer-dude locks and delivery, Wilcox is more comfortable in the modern-day scenes.)
Yet Portillo is eloquent throughout, and Robinson displays a knack for depicting a tightly controlled list-keeper losing control. They're dealing with image- and sound-based text and, on those terms, the results are effective. The design elements fold artfully together, so that you can't always put your finger on why they're working. When Sor Juana gazes at the night lights of Phoenix, or Tom takes a shower of sand, not water, "Silence" realizes a sense of quirky mystery.
* "Properties of Silence," About Productions, 2100 Square Feet Theater, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. No shows Sept. 2-5; closing performances Sept. 26 at 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 26. $12 to $15. (323) 655-TKTS. Running time: 1 hour.
Rose Portillo: Sor Juana
Diane Robinson: Barbara
Clay Wilcox: Tom/Miranda
Written by Theresa Chavez, Rose Portillo and Alan Pulner. Directed by B.J. Dodge. Set by Douglas Ridgeway. Composer-sound designer: Julie Adler. Costumes by Wren Crosley. Lighting by Evan Merryman Ritter and Joshua Jade. Videographer: Janice Tanaka. Stage manager: Silvana Berberian.
Editor's note: Playwright-director Theresa Chavez is married to Daily Calendar Editor Oscar Garza.