A woman in a nun's habit stands behind a woman in a wheelchair. She is wrapping a long red length of cloth around her shoulders.
Claudia Rentería (rear) and Rosario Vargas in Cintas de Seda at Aguijón Theater Credit: Elio Leturia

Last fall for the Destinos: Chicago International Latino Theater Festival, Aguijón Theater (the oldest Latinx company in the city) unveiled the world premiere of Rey Andújar’s La Gran Tirana (descarga dramática), a fantasia based on the life of singer “La Lupe” (Lupe Victoria Yolí Raymond). This year, the company turns its attentions and considerable talents to two iconic women in Mexican art: 20th-century painter Frida Kahlo and 17th-century poet and composer  Juana Inés de la Cruz, or Sor Juana. 

Cintas de Seda
Through 11/20: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Aguijón Theater, 2707 N. Laramie, aguijontheater.org, $35 general admission (or 2 for $60), $20 students, educators, and seniors, $12 for Belmont-Cragin residents with ID showing zip codes 60634, 60635, 60639, or 60641. Presented in Spanish with English supertitles.

Cintas de Seda, written by Norge Espinoza Mendoza and directed by Sándor Menéndez, unfolds in a hospital on the eve of Día de los Muertos. The Painter (Aguijón co-artistic director Rosario Vargas) cradles empty bottles of wine in memory of her former happier days and works sporadically on a painting, while The Nun (Claudia Rentería) mediates between the fiery artist and the controlling Doctor (Marcopolo Soto). 

It’s clear who The Painter represents, even before she launches into a monologue about the death of Leon Trotsky. (Kahlo, who had once been lovers with the exiled Soviet revolutionary, was briefly suspected of being an accomplice to his assassination by Ramón Mercader.) But The Nun’s role is unveiled more slowly and purposefully—appropriate, given that the real Sor Juana’s gifts were hidden from historical consideration for centuries until Octavio Paz and others championed her as a major poet of the Spanish Golden Age and a protofeminist.

The Painter paints The Nun, while The Nun talks about her secret writing. And The Doctor is a man divided—all business and authority when bossing his patient and his employee around, but when seen behind the scrim at the back of the playing area, a pitiable and possibly insane figure. When alone, The Painter pulls out a large red flag with the communist hammer and sickle and drapes herself in it. She’s isolated in her illness, but still dreams of revolution.

The gray-walled, dimly lit hospital itself could be a relic of Mexican colonial times or of Sor Juana’s cloistered home as a nun. Is it a real place? An afterlife purgatory? The story teases out both possibilities. (If you’re expecting an afterlife like Pixar’s Coco, which also featured Kahlo as an exuberant performance artist, you’ll be disappointed.) “There is an epidemic out there,” The Nun tells The Painter. (The real Sor Juana, forced to give up her writing and sell her books, died of the plague while tending to her fellow sisters in 1695.) But the epidemic of authoritarianism and patriarchy is within the walls, too, and as the soliloquies from both women make clear, the cure for that is far from certain, and the disease has lingered for centuries, from both church and state. Vargas and Rentería play their roles with arresting chemistry, like solo dancers learning to mirror each other’s moves. (Mirrors are also an important metaphor in this story.)

Beautiful visuals and poetic language surround and entrance us as the 90-minute show unfolds. Vargas’s Frida describes “hummingbirds like children’s hearts suspended in the air” surrounding the gardens in her famous Casa Azul. The title translates as “silk ribbons,” referring to the luxurious material used to trim clothing, and it’s an apt metaphor for how Mendoza structures the narrative of these women’s lives, in which small details add rich texture. Augusto Yanacopulos’s set (he also collaborated with Aguijón co-artistic director Marcela Muñoz on the effective crepuscular lighting) captures the boxed-in world where these two extraordinary women work out their final resistance (which involves a twist that won’t be revealed here). Live guitar music from Norberto Guerra González, who sits to one side in a monk’s robes, adds a quiet, mournful, reflective air.

This isn’t a piece about reclaiming women’s lives from the outside through straightforward biography. It’s about creating an atmosphere where we can feel what it would be like to live those lives—thwarted by illness, sexism, and politics, yet ultimately defiant and unbowed.