BWW Reviews: Teresa of Ávila comes to life in GOD'S GYPSY, Coco Blignaut's World Premiere at the Lillian Theater

GOD'S GYPSY is a bold, sexy and humanizing portrait of the 16th century mystic who became one of the most controversial reformers of the Catholic Church. Spoiled with beauty and riches, Teresa was sent to a convent as a young girl to learn discipline, but instead discovered an unparalleled spiritual fervor.

Adapted for the stage from Bárbara Mujica's painstakingly researched novel "Sister Teresa," Teresa's days of youthful romance, secret Jewish ancestry, cloak-and-dagger political dealings during the Spanish Inquisition and fits of spiritual rapture unfold in a riveting account of sisterhood, faith, and the miracle of salvation through one woman's personal relationship with God.

This highly sensorial theater piece explores Teresa's Jewish roots, her unconventional prayer life, her clashes with the Inquisition and her profound spirituality. Publishers Weekly called the feisty and funny Teresa a "mystic for our times" and GOD'S GYPSY brings her to life. Please note due to adult themes and mature content, this play is recommended for ages 14+.

"Teresa believed that an immediate, direct connection to God could be experienced through meditation, by turning inward," notes Mujica. "It's a very modern concept, and one of the reasons she has been called 'a saint for our age.' "

Playwright Coco Blignaut, who also stars as Teresa, Tsulan Cooper (Sister Angelica), Daniel deWeldon (Father Braulio) and Edison Park (Father Javier) are all members of The Actors Studio, where the play was previously workshopped for over three years. As part of the development process, excerpts have also been performed at Georgetown University where Mujica is a professor. Also in the cast are David Haverty, Abbe Rowlins, Pat Satcher, Carole Weyers and Jeanne Witczak.

The play is a tour de force for both Blignaut and Cooper, although not an easy play to watch given the ruthless treatment of women by the church and Spanish Inquisition who felt women were hysterical and not to be trusted. The scenes of torture are almost unbearable with Blignaut and Cooper, especially, enduring atrocious animal-like torture. Their riveting performances will have you entranced, even though you may want to yell out for their hideous treatment to stop. But do not cover your eyes or look away for too long or you will miss some of the most dramatic and sensational moments I have ever witnessed on stage.

Blignaut is a wonder as she spirals down through Sister Teresa's bouts of rapture, totally immersing herself in the moment, taking us with her into the recesses of her mind, body and spiritual soul.

But there are several lighter scenes in the play as well, my favorite being the fireside chat during which Sister Angelica shares hot chocolate for the first time with Sister Teresa, who claims the elixir should not be shared with the rest of the nuns for fear of them doing nothing else all day. Blignaut and Cooper are irresistible in their childlike joy, with the women in the audience laughing right along, acknowledging the addictive power of the sweet confection. And when Cooper's Sister Angelica tries tobacco for the first time, you will feel her all-encompassing coughing jag down deep in your own lungs!

And kudos go to Daniel deWeldon whose evil Father Braulio makes life a living hell for Sister Teresa and especially Sister Angelica. He is the embodiment men who treat women as objects and so convincing in his brutality, you will dread his every appearance. This is the mark of a brilliant performance that enlists such an emotional response to a character of pure evil. I guarantee you will never smell a flower in the same way after watching him use one in a seduction attempt of a novice nun. And thoughts of Sister Teresa's life will definitely come to mind the next time you encounter the sweet scent of roses.

Celebrated violinist Lili Haydn composed the original score and performed live at the opening night performance as she will continue to do at select performances throughout the run. It is the music of gypsies, wild and free. Set design for GOD'S GYPSY is by the show's director Joel Daavid and can be considered a character in the play, so intrinsic is the look of the fog-shrouded stone set to the mood and atmospheric realism of the production. Lighting design is by Leigh Allen, sound design is by Christopher Moscatiello, costume design is by Michael Mullen which included not only the various religious garments but beautiful regal gowns for the fine ladies of the upper class.

The play runs about 3 hours which felt a bit too long for this intense a play. There were times I really felt the need to stand up, shake my body or get a bit of fresh air, especially after witnessing the scenes of torture. But my discomfort was noting compared to what Sisters Teresa and Angelica had to endure.

Written by Coco Blignaut
Based on the novel "Sister Teresa" by Bárbara Mujica
Developed at The Actors Studio in collaboration with Bárbara Mujica
Directed by Joel Daavid
Original music composed and recorded by Lili Haydn
* composer/musician Lili Haydn will play live at the performances on Nov. 30 and Dec. 7

Starring Coco Blignaut, Tsulan Cooper, Daniel deWeldon, David Haverty, Edison Park, Abbe Rowlins, Pat Satcher, Carole Weyers, Jeanne Witczak
Produced by Mike Abramson for God's Gypsy Productions

Lillian Theatre
1076 Lillian Way
Hollywood, CA 90038
(1½ blocks west of Vine at Santa Monica Blvd.)
Performances: Nov. 30, 2013 - Jan. 12, 2014
Thursdays at 8 p.m: Dec. 5, 12, 19; Jan. 2, 9 (dark Dec. 26)
Fridays at 8 p.m: Dec. 6, 13, 20; Jan. 3, 10 (dark Dec. 27)
Saturdays at 8 p.m: Nov. 30* (opening night); Dec. 7*, 14, 21; Jan. 4, 11 (dark Dec. 28)
Sundays at 6 p.m: Dec. 1, 8, 15, 22; Jan. 5, 12 (dark Dec. 29)

General admission: $30
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