In 17th century Mexico City, there were no upbeat sitcoms about single women living alone in the big city. A woman had no social right to a room of her own.
So the Catholic Church created Belen, a home for unmarried women without means of support. Residents weren't allowed to leave. Belen gradually became more prison-like; women were forcibly brought there. In 1860, it was turned into an actual prison that achieved considerable notoriety before it was torn down in 1935.
In "Las Horas de Belen," a Mabou Mines production that was at Cal State Northridge on Thursday and Friday, Belen serves as an apt metaphor for broader paternalistic attitudes toward women.
The Massachusetts-based poet Catherine Sasanov wrote 12 poems inspired by Belen. Liliana Felipe set the Spanish translations (by Luz Aurora Pimentel and Alberto Blanco) to music, and director Ruth Maleczech and designer Julie Archer adapted the results. The original English poetry is projected onto backdrops (though letters are occasionally distorted by the texture of the set), while the sung verse is in Spanish.
The piece is imagistic, not narrative. The primary visual focus is on Jesusa Rodriguez, a Mexican actress whose chiseled facial features are remarkably expressive. Usually clad in white muslin, with her hair braided Tehuantepec-style, she does repetitive domestic tasks in small, quick, robotic jerks and starts--as if this emblem of Mexican peasant women is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Later she strips to the waist and applies white flour over her face and torso, in an attempt to erase her india heritage. And she attacks a watermelon with a knife, as a projection on her bare back conjures up an image that alludes both to female sexuality and the Virgen de Guadalupe.
A few feet away, Felipe sings cabaret-style, usually staying behind her piano but occasionally rising, mike in hand, to approach Rodriguez. Wearing mariachi-style pants and a skimpy top, she often smiles, conveying breezy sophistication even as she sings of sorrowful subjects--a dramatic contrast to the morose Rodriguez.
A third performer, Monica Dionne, occupies a cell, above the others on the sidelines. She offers spoken "outbursts" in English. Her character appears to be an attempt to consider political and contemporary analogies, but her precise role remains a little hazy.
In Archer's design, the mostly silent Rodriguez provides the pictures on one side of this staged Book of Hours, against a backdrop of Mexican shawls, while the very verbal Felipe sings the poetry on the facing "page," against a backdrop of shapes that suggest ex-voto art pieces. Projections of giant teardrops and a few faces appear.
The imagery is striking, but "Las Horas" could benefit from a sharper, more explicit connection to the here and now.