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The Royal Hunt of the Sun

So fell Peru...We gave it greed, hunger and the cross.
---Martin Ruiz, Page to General Francisco Pizarro

Chris Galindo, center
Chris Galindo (Photo: Ray Gniewek)
Washington Shakespeare Company (WSC) closes their season with a show that has great potential as a cautionary tale for our own times. The Royal Hunt of the Sun details the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire, which while stated in religious tones of "converting the pagan heathens" really amounted to a desire to enslave the Incan people and to steal the natural resources, as well as the enormous treasury of gold that the Inca had accumulated over centuries. The amount of gold that the Spanish were able to plunder had never before been seen in the Western world and assisted in filling the national vaults of Spain's King Carlos V. It all sounds extremely familiar to today's world where a current super power is ransacking a nation ostensibly to "free the people from tyranny" but in reality is simply engaging in a greedy desire to take one of the largest underground oil reserves for its own. But we won't go there, because Washington Shakespeare Company doesn't go there either.

Written in 1964, playwright Peter Shaffer's play could also have been viewed as a Vietnam anti-war era message and was made into a film in 1969. Its themes are intriguingly timely as one looks at the histories of nations and civilizations -- past, present and future. However, the author of Equus and Amadeus engages in some long-winded monologues and hand-wringing in a play which, as presented by WSC, makes it hard to sympathize with any of the characters. In the end you wish the Incas would slaughter the Spaniards and be very quick about it. Alas, that doesn't happen...

Director Steven Scott Mazzola has created a hodgepodge of a show. While The Royal Hunt of the Sun wonderfully utilizes almost every inch of the Clark Street Playhouse performance space, its almost bare bones set does little to hold your attention. Not a good choice when dealing with material from which the playwright could have purged about 30 minutes. And Mr. Mazzola shows a lack of seeing the finer details within the production. While one character seems to go in and out of a southern accent, another is using modern handcuffs on the Incan ruler.

To be fair, set designer Matthew Soule's use of tapestry to evoke scene changes is a wonderful touch. But this is a "large show" dealing with fabulous amounts of gold, the slaughter of a peaceful people and the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. All things still happening today. It needs more than a gold scrim. Especially since the writing itself borders on tiresome.

We quickly become weary of General Francisco Pizarro's bitter, disillusioned tirades. If he's so disillusioned then why doesn't he do something? Instead he takes his share of the Inca's gold and then asks that Atahuallpa (the Incan ruler) not be burned at the stake.

Meanwhile, Atahuallpa is presented as a warrior ruler who is either a Zen master or on Prozac, because he views his imprisonment in an almost nonchalant manner. Someone who remorselessly commits fratricide so he does not have to share being a nation's ruler would not seemingly sit contentedly about in confinement. Especially when he could order all of his people to eradicate the small number of Spanish troops at a moment's notice.

Mr. Shaffer's use of a narrator for the play -- the older personification of Pizarro's young page Martin Ruiz -- works only slightly. As a young man (Matt Mezzacappa), the page is so naively gung ho that he seems almost incapable of surviving the hardships of climbing over the Andes Mountains. As the older narrator (Jim Jorgensen), we don't really feel his ironic confession to be truly authentic.

Cynthia Abel Thom's costumes do little to grab or hold our attention. Some tunics, a few shifts and a dozen swords do not create a mood. And the modern hair styles -- especially with the Incan ruler -- are distracting. Lighting designer Ayun Fedorcha incorporates interesting filters into her lighting scheme. Krissie Marty's choreographer melds well with Mariano Vales' original music. Mr. Vales' score is one of the best aspects of the play.

The 20-member cast seemingly does what it can with the one-dimensional characters. James Foster Jr.'s Francisco Pizarro is all anger as an old man who is seemingly revived by being in the presence of Peter Pereyra's young and handsome Atahuallpa. The onstage relationship the actors emit supersedes the almost unbelievable material that they have been given. Daniel Ladmirault and Brian Crane's "I See The Devil Everywhere" Catholic priests are appropriately insincere as they use ridiculous rationalizations to condone murder and assorted sadistic mayhem. It makes you think of today's Catholic Church scandals, like the current attempt to shun responsibility by a former Archbishop by stating the mother of his illegitimate son should have used birth control when having sex with him as a seminarian. The wonderful aspect of theatre -- it shows us some things never change.

The Incan people, as Mr Shaffer writes them, were a group of contented agrarians with hardly an individual thought roaming through their brains. The subtle tone of the script, I would think, might insult the people of Peru or anyone of Incan heritage. On the other hand, he does excel at pointing out our own foibles. Such as how the Christian's view the Inca as stupid for believing in a religion that is not built on "factual" information and one that considers their god as living among them in human form. But of course, when the Inca ask for an explanation of Christ, the Christians become terse and angry. One of the funniest lines in the play is uttered by Peter Pereyra in describing the Catholic faith and its "cannibalistic" attitude towards its deity -- "They eat him. He becomes a biscuit and then they eat him." Stated with utter innocence, it hits directly home.

Another insightful point in the play is when James Foster states, "Surely we're made greedy when we are taught that it (greed) is normal." Something that we in our Hummer evolved, super-sized latte offering, "life should be a spa experience where others pick up after me" society might want to meditate on.

Definitely not a show for anyone who does not enjoy historical dramas, a larger company with a greater budget could potentially make something of The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Unfortunately, Washington Shakespeare Company seems to be struggling to keep pace with the material as well as the audiences' interest. In the end Royal Hunt of the Sun is kind of a travelogue to the annoyance of missionaries and aggressive super powers.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun
by Peter Shaffer
Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola
with William Aitken, Leslie Sarah Cohen, Brian Crane, Edward Daniels, James Foster Jr., Chris Galindo, Theo Hadjimichael, Katherine E. Hill, Jim Jorgensen, Daniel Ladmirault, Steve Lee, Matt Mezzacappa, Peter Pereyra, Alex Perez, Francisco Reinoso, Beth Madeline Rubens, Nick Scott, Michael Sherman, Addison Switzer, Shane Wallis
Set Designer: Matthew Soule
Lighting Designer: Ayun Fedorcha
Costume Designer: Cynthia Abel Thom
Sound Designer: Matthew Nielson
Music Director and Original Music Composed by Mariano Vales
Choreographer: Krissie Marty
Fight Choreographer: John Gurski
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
A production of Washington Shakespeare Company
Clark Street Playhouse, 601 South Clark Street, Crystal City
Telephone: 703-418-4808, 1-800-494-8497 or
THU - SAT @8, SAT - SUN @2; $22-$30
Opening 07/21/05, closing 08/28/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 07/29/05 performance
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