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Diary of a Haven-Turned-Hell

Avant-garde theater group Mabou Mines reexamines the haunting past of a Mexican landmark.

May 30, 1999|SUSAN MORGAN | Susan Morgan is an arts writer based in Los Angeles

MEXICO CITY — Surrounded by the ruins of a 16th century cloister in this city's Centro Historico, Ruth Maleczech takes a rehearsal break. As director and scenarist, she has just overseen a technical run-through of "Las Horas de Belen: A Book of Hours," the most recent collaborative theater work by New York-based theater troupe Mabou Mines, which Maleczech co-founded in 1970 with Lee Breuer, Jo Anne Akalaitis, Philip Glass and David Warrilow.

The company, named for a town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is one of the world's leading avant-garde theater companies, and throughout its nearly 30-year history it has created astonishing stage work that crosses both cultures and disciplines: In "Gospel at Colonus" (1982), the classic tragedy of Oedipus was gloriously retold within the exalted ceremony of an African American gospel service; "Peter and Wendy," seen last year at L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse, disclosed the keen poignancy of J.M. Barrie's original story through puppetry, Celtic music, film projections, shadow play and virtuosic narration.

As conceptualized and directed by Maleczech, "Las Horas" lyrically invokes the complex and troubled history of Belen, a sanctuary for women founded in 1683 by Roman Catholic clergy that evolved into one of Mexico's most notoriously violent prisons. In "Las Horas," Belen's layered past is conveyed through a suite of a dozen poems by Cambridge, Mass.-based writer Catherine Sasanov.

Sensitively translated into Spanish by Luz Aurora Pimentel and Alberto Blanco, Sasanov's harsh, exquisite verses have been translated again, into voluptuous song, by Liliana Felipe, an Argentine-born composer. In performance, Felipe is stunning; dressed in an antique mariachi suit and possessed of a gimlet-eyed grandeur, she accompanies herself on the piano and sings with blazing intensity an original song cycle that draws freely on traditions ranging from the sentimentality of ranchera tunes to the brisk whirl of a waltz, the syncopated rhythm of a danzon to the sacred tones of Gregorian chants.

"Las Horas" is presented as a vibrant book of hours, a spellbinding account recorded through a synthesis of poetry and music, light and shadow, movement and stillness. A silent woman is played by Jesusa Rodriguez, one of Mexico's premier theater artists, who is also artistic director and a performer at El Habito, a political cabaret she opened in 1990 in Coyoacan, not far from Frida Kahlo's legendary Casa Azul. For the performance, Rodriguez wears a shapeless white muslin dress, her hair braided in Tehuantepec style, as she performs silent expressions of subjugation, revenge and fragile desires. On five occasions, the scenes are interrupted by what Maleczech calls "outbursts." Written in prose by Sasanov, the outbursts are delivered by an actress (Shaula Vega) in contemporary dress. Her voice has a fierce clarity as she unleashes litanies of intolerable fates: nuns who complete five-mile pilgrimages pacing their cells; poor women who die as "mules" crossing the border with drugs hidden inside their bodies.

The production is here at the invitation of Mexico City's 15th Festival del Centro Historico, an annual pan-cultural celebration developed to revitalize the megalopolis' dilapidated but still beautiful heart. This world premiere of "Las Horas" took place recently in the chapel of the Claustro de Sor Juana before coming to New York for its current off-Broadway run. Known as the "Tenth Muse," Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-1695) was a prodigious intellect, a feminist poet who renounced all worldly contact.

In the de-consecrated chapel named for Sor Juana, the tech run-through of "Las Horas" had to adapt to decidedly low-tech conditions. Julie Archer--the inspired visual artist whose set, lighting and puppetry designs for Mabou Mines during the last 20 years have won the accolades of her profession, including American Theatre Wing awards, Obies and most recently the PEW/TCG Theater Artist residency Fellowship--works with admirable and unflappable concentration. By hand, she slowly places leaves, spilled water and a photographic negative of a holy card featuring the Virgin of Guadelupe onto the tray of an overhead projector, casting their projected images against the back wall of the makeshift stage. The ghostly pictures--simple yet haunting--capture the transformative mystery that is pure theater. Meanwhile, extension cords snake across the floor over disused altars and out of windows; a heavy-duty flashlight, held by a steady hand, provides an impressively accurate follow spot.

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