‘House of Desires’ offers a hilarious, nuanced history lesson

A man in a jacket with a cane sits next to a woman in a suit.
“House of Desires” is a 17th century play that follows overlapping love triangles and is fueled by misunderstandings and miscommunications. (Courtesy: Evan Johnson)

The Pomona College theater department’s mainstage show for the fall, “House of Desires,” may have been written in 1683 and set in the 1950s, yet its timeless comedy still proved wildly entertaining to modern audiences. 

“I saw it, and then I went to see it again, just because I had so much fun the first time around,” Gabi Seifert SC ’23 said. “It was really entertaining the whole time. I was never left sitting, waiting for something to happen.” 

“House of Desires” ran from Nov. 18-21 at the Seaver Theatre at Pomona. It was written in 1683 by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun residing in Mexico City, and is considered one of the foundational theatrical pieces of colonial Latin America. It centers on multiple overlapping love triangles and takes place almost entirely in a single location, creating an atmosphere of chaos and confusion where misunderstandings abound and miscommunications fuel the plot. 

The play was directed by guest director Beth Lopes, a freelance theater director based in Los Angeles. “House of Desires” was her first time working with the Pomona College theater department. According to Lopes, one of the challenges in staging “House of Desires” was navigating these misunderstandings and deciding how and when to convey what each character knew to the audience.

“This script is so challenging,” she said. “There’s so many elements that you can hear in conversation with writers of around the same time, like Shakespeare, you know, mistaken identities and disguise and that sort of thing, but Sor Juana has managed to escalate them to the next level. The fact that she keeps the ball in the air for as long as she does, of who can hear what [and] when…there’s just so much going on.”

One of the ways the play conveys this is through rapid-fire asides to the audience, in which the characters take turns breaking the fourth wall to give the audience an inside look at their true motivations or reactions. Grace Tomblin Marca SC ’22, who played multiple roles in the play, described how the play started to take shape once these asides became seamless during the rehearsal process.

“The lights and the sound change, and everyone freezes, and one character gets to have a moment with the audience,” she said. “When that started, it was so chaotic, because all these elements have to come together to make those moments work. But when they started to get really clean, that was so much fun.”

Youssef El Mosalami PO ’24, who plays a servant named Castaño, is relatively new to theatre, with “House of Desires” being their second in-person show. They were grateful for the welcoming community the cast was able to create in just a short amount of time. 

“I think I didn’t realize how nice it was going to be to go from people that we didn’t know like two months beforehand to being really close at the end,” they said. “People always talk about how theater is a family but I didn’t really expect for it to feel like one until we did our last show and I was like, ‘I’m going to miss this group.’ Everyone really wanted to be there, which was something that really made me really excited.”

For Andrew Gewecke PO ’24, “House of Desires” was doubly special due to both its signaling of the return to in-person theatre and the resources the Pomona theater department was able to devote to the play. 

 “It was especially meaningful to me because my high school had a very small theater program…and now I come here and there’s a theater with this full costume shop and realistic props and I get to play someone who has a serious, named part with a whole character arc,” he said. “You get to be very invested in it in a way that I haven’t gotten to do before and that I’ve always wanted to do and that was really special. It’s the most work and the most reward I’ve put into a production by far.” 

“House of Desires” features extremely progressive themes for its time, exploring female desire, agency and the subversion of gendered expectations.

“It’s surprisingly super relevant, partly because Sor Juana was so ahead of her time. We chose to set it in the [19]50s because the ’50s was this time when the whole idea of love, duty and honor that is so prevalent in this time kind of comes back a bit,” Tomblin Marca said.

Lopes described how at the time “House of Desires” was written, women had to navigate strict notions of etiquette and honor while trying to balance their hopes and desires with the expectations of the men around them. 

“I think the most relevant throughline is that there is just an impossible tightrope that female-identifying people in this world are expected to walk… and I think that that is still very much alive today and also in this play,” she said.

This dynamic is especially reflected in the character of Doña Ana, played by Lucia Stein SC ’23. 

“Doña Ana, from the beginning, is sort of running the show and is really taking her own destiny into her own hands, which is something that wasn’t [historically] afforded women, let alone putting it on stage and having her be the central figure,” she said.

I really think it’s a powerful thing to feel connected to people 500 years ago because it’s nice to know that there’s some sort of continuity within the species or the world or the cultural milieu.”—Andrew Gewecke PO ’24

Gewecke thinks that the perpetual relevance of the themes of “House of Desires” helps connect us to the past and legitimizes our continued struggle to understand these ideas.

“I’m always struck by the writing from a long time ago that has made it to today, and how relevant it still is to basic human problems,” he said. “Like the fact that we’re still writing about ‘I love her and she doesn’t love me and it sucks’ for basically 2,000 years is remarkable. I really think it’s a powerful thing to feel connected to people 500 years ago because it’s nice to know that there’s some sort of continuity within the species or the world or the cultural milieu. I feel like it almost validates it a little bit. The fact that we’re still struggling with this stuff, like love, means it must be somewhat important,” he said.

The complex explorations of “House of Desire” also reject black-and-white understandings of the time period and add nuance to our perceptions of it.

“I think it’s even more remarkable given the fact that we sometimes feel so distant from other time periods,” he continued. “It’s easy to look at something like rampant misogyny in the 1600s and characterize the entire time period as barbaric because of that and in a way it is, but they still dealt with heartbreak and fear and overthinking and everyday life, like the struggles that I think that we would very find relevant if we just reframe them a little bit. And I think that’s why we still perform these.”

Editor’s note: Lucia Stein SC ’23 is a news writer for TSL.

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