Religion, greed and truth all play an important role in Peter Shaffer’s saga about Spain’s conquest of Peru and its riches. Director Steven Scott Mazzola never loses sight of Washington Shakespeare Company’s mission to emphasize a provocative, bold, intimate approach within its productions. Soaring goals sometimes are never fully realized but for Mazzola and WSC, this hunt brings home the gold.
The much maligned Clark Street Playhouse, with its high ceilings and warehouse feel, is perfect for such a grand production yet still allows for a wonderfully intimate theatre adventure. The thundering bass drums and marvelous ensemble of female voices singing original music by Mariano Vales have great presence and sonic imagery–not an easy feat in the austere, spare surroundings of Clark Street.
The splendor and pageantry needed to properly stage the grand entrance of Incan king Atahualpa (Peter Pereyra) or the massacre of thousands of Incans with less than two hundred Spanish swords seemed fluent and effortless. It was only during Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro’s (James Foster, Jr) march through the Andes with his soldiers tumbling and weaving through the imaginary boulders and rocky gaps that I felt a more extravagant set might be called for. Sure the conquistadors could have been uniformed more impressively, using armor instead of leather, but it really did not matter. Mazzola scores big on so many things that the small details do not become major obstacles for this adventure set south of the equator.
As the hunt for riches progresses, the splendor and ceremony are replaced by a complex quandary. Pizarro’s army slaughters three thousand Incan men and Pizarro questionably agrees to free Atahualpa once a room full of gold is delivered to him. While getting to know and understand the culture, Pazarro finds himself progressively unsure of his decision and becoming tired of the soldier’s life he has chosen. His army is increasingly absorbed by the gold and the power it yields. His senior staff angrily confronting his decision to release Atahualpa sets the stage for a final showdown where his growing respect for Incan civilization cannot spare Atahualpa from execution on a Spanish gallows. In the end it is the desire to spread Christianity and the greed for gold that prevails over friendship, respect and honor.
The final image mirrors the opening scene as the Incan king is replaced on the shoulders of his people by the emissary of the Christian church. The lights dim on the golden sun and on an empire more civilized in many ways than our own.
If you enjoy epic historical productions that leave you debating moral themes then you could do no better than a night in Arlington with The Royal Hunt of the Sun.