Now playing at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, “The Tenth Muse” deals with issues of women’s rights, religion, racism, caste systems and the destruction of art.
“This is a very different type of show,” actor Heather Roche-Waldo said. “It really reinforced what I don’t know.”
The play is part of North Coast Rep’s La Voz project, a partnership with Centro del Pueblo Humboldt. For the next three seasons, the theatre will feature at least one production by a Latinx playwright.
Director Carol Lang made an excellent choice this season with “The Tenth Muse.” Created by Mexican playwright Tanya Saracho for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the play is set in an 18th-century convent in Mexico and features an all-female cast of characters.
The story begins when young mestiza servant, Jesusa (Fiva Pula), arrives at the convent. Jesusa was sent to take care of a nun who is going blind. Once inside, she meets her new roommates, Lady Manuela (Sarah Traywick), an entitled socialite, and Tomasita (Amelia Resendez), a timid indigenous girl.
The three young women discover a play written by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and beginning acting it out to pass the time. Jesusa also finds some of Inés’ written music and a lute to play, which is strictly forbidden inside the convent walls.
During her days, Jesusa tends to the needs of Sor Isabelle (Queena Delany), a somewhat unruly sister who is losing her sight, while Tomasita helps Sor Filmonena (Michelle Purnell) in the kitchen. Sor Rufina (Heather Roche-Waldo) is a skeptical and slightly cold sister, while Mother Superior runs the convent with an iron fist.
The all-female ensemble was fantastic, each player highlighting the quirks of her character superbly. Pula lit up the stage with her effervescent Jesusa. Delany was a joy to watch as Sor Isabelle, who is clinging onto her last glimpses of music and art left by her beloved sister Juana Inés.
Denise Ryles played a powerful and frightening Mother Superior. At a climax in the story she commits such a cruel act, audience members gasped and cried. Ryles said she had to find what she liked about the character to be able to play her.
“The inquisition is really at their door,” Ryles said. “For that particular time and for women in general, that was serious business. She had to be stern in order to protect everyone.”
“The Tenth Muse” is a must-see, though you may not walk away with a smile. This play makes both audience members and players question their own actions and realities more deeply.
“I think that’s really important. To push people’s boundaries of comfort in theatre,” ensemble actor Karen Echegaray said. “Because that’s how we learn.”
“The Tenth Muse” is playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre every weekend through April 7.