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Sweet Sor Juana 

House of Desires provides something to lust after.

House of Desires, the Washington University Performing Arts Department's spring production, opens with a silent bang: As a small band plays live on the side of the stage, cast members chase one another through the set. Up and down the double staircase of Don Pedro's Toledo villa, through the doors, around the perimeter of the garden wall — every inch of the set is utilized as men and women dash through this Spanish fantasy. It's a wonderful opening, laying out the plot of this comedy of errors: Beautiful people spurred on by the pangs of love stumble through the dark in search of one another, but just keep missing.

Momentum is flattened somewhat by the opening speech, in which Doña Ana (Kaylin Boosalis) must lay out the backstory. Ana is being wooed by Don Juan (Matthew Gill). She also has her eyes on Don Carlos (Chris Hartman), who is himself that very night eloping with his love, Doña Leonor (Elizabeth Neukirch); but Ana's brother Don Pedro (Rob McLemore) also has the hots for Leonor. Carlos and Leonor's flight has been foiled, and now Leonor is detained in Pedro's house. Carlos as well ends up a fugitive in the same house, hidden along with his companion Castaño (Lee Osorio) by Ana and her maid, Celia (Dara Malina). To add to the confusion, Don Juan has been secreted by Celia in Ana's bedroom.

The plot's thorniness is part of its charm. Written by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in the seventeenth century, House of Desires is a baroque comedy modeled on the Spanish Golden Age of Drama, in which the prime movers are personal honor and courtly love. Sor Juana was herself an autodidact who went from being a lady in waiting at the Mexican court to the convent, where she wrote most of her poetry and plays.

Director Trevor Biship has assembled a marvelous cast that embraces the ridiculousness of the situations with brio. Boosalis is coquettish and cunning as she explains her plan to get Carlos for herself and have Leonor married off to Pedro. Malina's Celia is equally enchanting, but with a brassier, mercenary streak; she may be working for Ana, but she's open to bribes from just about everyone else. Hartman and Neukirch are well matched as the heroic lovers, Carlos and Leonor; he's manly and noble, while she's intelligent and rational.

Leonor's intellect is greatly played up in the plot. But while it's tempting to view her as a stand-in for Sor Juana, Leonor is a bit of a pill, overthinking everything. It's even more tempting to picture Sor Juana, the former lady-in-waiting, as the current lady-in-waiting, Celia — who's out to get paid and get laid and will outmaneuver anyone who would oppose her.

Should a seventeenth-century nun be described in such terms? Well, Sor Juana somehow had House of Desires staged in her lifetime, which must have required quite a bit of behind-the-scenes finagling of a sort that only a Celia could pull off.

Celia's only real rival is Castaño. Osorio plays the dandy gentleman's gentleman with a mincing air and a cutting tongue. Faced with the one problem he can't readily solve, Castaño is rescued by an act of dress ex machina that nearly brings down the house. Osorio proceeds to top this scene by transforming himself into a woman with delicious self-awareness.

Meanwhile the chorus (which doubles as the band) provides yet another layer of comedy, enacting its own silent romances behind the nobility, making eyes and flirting across the stage. Though Jeffrey Noonan's original music is excellent throughout, the high point arrives just before intermission, when the chorus takes center stage for a song that debates the worst aspects of love, wherein Jesse Markowitz plays the most lascivious violin ever witnessed in this, or any, century.

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