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CurtainUp Review
Cartas: a nun in love

by Les Gutman

My love herewith does not depend on how you treat me.
. . . . .
My loving you does not depend on seeing you.
. . . . .
Love alone does not yield love.

What is love?

It's not a fair question, really, and yet it is central to perhaps more plays than any other single inquiry. Cartas goes to an unusual place to find an answer.

This is a story that few, if any, of us have ever heard, and yet it is, we are told, well known in Portugal and France. Its subject is a Seventeenth Century Portuguese nun named Marianna. In the convent, she met and fell in love with a French soldier, but he left her there, never to return.

Although Marianna spent over 70 years in that covent -- she became an abbess -- she is revered because, over the course of a couple of those years, she wrote a series of five love letters to the man. Until the 19th Century, it was thought they had been written by a man. (Rousseau said they were too smart to have been written by a woman.) There seems to linger some doubt even now about their provenance.

Regardless, it is unlikely anyone has ever provided an answer to the pending question as concise, or as exhaustive, as the one revealed in Marianna's epistolatory masterpiece. Myriam Cyr has translated these letters into English, and now presents them in performance. As recently as 1971, women in Portugal were jailed for committing such an act.

This full production emanates from a reading that was included in The Culture Project's inaugural production called Women Center Stage. Bringing these letters onto our radar screen is an important achievement. There is also no question but that this production, which puts much flesh on the bare bones of the letters, entices us in ways a dry reading might not. Ms. Cyr exhibits the broad emotional range these letters suggest (about which, more, in a minute). Lisa Forrell directs fluidly, and has nicely created interludes between each Adieu and the commencement of the next letter. (The most elegant relies on a stunning Portugeuse song that nicely captures the mood.) Richard Hsu has created a dark, austere set that is impressively evocative, and the costumes, lighting and sound all go far in creating the mood.

Yet Ms. Cyr has chosen a tone that seems at times quite diverting. There is a contemporary sensibility to her (otherwise quite wonderful) performance and, while it might arguably broaden the piece's focus, it does so at the expense of conveying the nature of its subject. I would have been satisfied to have been closeted in that 17th Century convent for the piece's hour or so duration.

Marianna's first letter suggests a hopeful longing for her soldier. "How could you be satisfied with a passion less ardent than mine?" she asks. Soon enough, agitation can be observed, followed by reproof ("I defy you to forget me..."). Then we see, in progression and in overlay, the three "D's" of unrequited love: devotion, despair and defiance. By the fourth letter, Marianna has taken stock of her situation, her interwoven misery and rage begetting a realization this love has drivien her to madness. The resolve with which it is succeeded ("I must love you no more...") is perhaps as untenable as her lover's indifference. It completes a remarkably realized arc.

There is in the religious life (I am told) an introspection that evades the rest of us. Here it is unveiled in a way far less holy, but no less spiritual, than one might ever have anticipated.

Translated and performed by Myriam Cyr
based on Les Lettres d'une Religieuse Portugaise
Directed by Lisa Forrell

Set Design: Richard Hsu
Costume Design: Luca Mosca and Marco Cattoretti
Lighting Design: Rick Martin Sound Design: Nancy Allen
Running Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes with no intermission
A production of The Culture Project
45 Bleecker Theatre, 45 Bleecker Street (@Lafayette) Telephone (212) 529-4530 or (212) 307-4100 Tues. - Sat. @8, Sun. @43; $35-45 (Tuesday performances are in French)
Opening 3/4/01 Closing 4/15/01 .
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 3/2/01 performance


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