The Royal Hunt of the Sun | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Royal Hunt of the Sun


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Most recent dramatic treatments of the colonization of the New World dwell on the political ramifications. Writing in 1964, however, Peter Shaffer saw the Spanish conquest of the Peruvian empire as a conflict in theologies--the same conflict that he argues in Equus and secularizes in The Private Ear, Amadeus, and Lettice & Lovage, that of the individual spirit struggling to survive in a world that stifles it in the name of security.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun also departs from current revisionist dogma in the way it presents European and Native American societies as equally repressive. While Christianity promotes pain and suffering as necessary antitheses to joy and salvation, the Inca tribe's pantheistic belief offers serenity only at the expense of individual freedom. How does one speak of "love" when all expression of that emotion is dictated by custom? If greed is useless, what then becomes of aspiration? The enemy of the human soul, according to Shaffer, is not the opposition of creeds but the ossification of a creed's tenets, which robs the creed of its meaning--save for those beings who declare themselves to be gods and therefore possessed of free will.

This is the revelation that gradually comes to a tired and cynical Francisco Pizarro, whose doubts about his own religious beliefs increase with exposure to Atahuallpa, the deposed Inca ruler whose subjects worship him as the direct descendant of the sun--much as the pope is held to be God's top deputy. Shaffer notes the parallels between the Inca and European mythologies, even to the concept of an afterlife, in great detail.

Though the playwright obviously sees Pizarro and Atahuallpa as the best of their cultures, neither is painted as perfect. Pizarro readily admits that he's the foundling child of a pig farmer, and Atahuallpa that he gained the throne through fratricide--which he defends as casuistically as the Spanish chaplain defends the slaughter of the "heathen infidels." Pizarro's army are a rude and unlettered lot, but their ranks also include the second-in-command, Hernando de Soto, a veteran soldier who may fire upon unarmed civilians if he deems it necessary but will not break a promise, and the courtly young Martin Ruiz, who serves as Pizarro's scribe and confidant and our narrator. Members of the Inca society also have their contradictions: Felipillo, the scout who initially acts as interpreter for the Spanish invaders, can be duplicitous. ("Was it for this we saved you from hell?" Father Valverde demands after Felipillo makes a rebellious assault upon one of Atahuallpa's queens. "We are made greedy when we are assured it's natural," Pizarro observes wryly.) And if the foreigners have brought disorder and dissent, they have also brought knowledge, which Atahuallpa embraces.

Yet even men who act with the freedom of gods have their ties to the status quo. Pizarro knows that the glorious name he seeks to make for himself and that of Atahuallpa, his surrogate son, whose death he cannot prevent, will make no difference in the long run: the mutual "corruption" of the two worlds has already been set in irreversible motion, and the most its two progenitors will have is their brief moment of happiness and optimism.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun is early enough in Shaffer's career to have fallen prey to overwriting; Interplay's production clocks in at a staggering three hours, at least 30 minutes of which could probably be excised. Then, too, the male bonding between the patriarchal Pizarro and the naive son of the sun at times teeters on the edge of Rousseauistic sentimentality. It is to the credit of director David Perkovich and his indefatigable cast that the production never founders under the densely packed narrative and elephantine spectacle. Michael Vernon Hamilton delivers a heroic performance in the exhausting role of Pizarro, and Andrew J. Turner likewise as Atahuallpa, whose noble-savage naivete could easily have grown cloying. (No thanks, either, to the odd "dialect" spoken by the Incas in this production, probably intended to approximate English in rough translation: it emerges as an overenunciated bark in which "blessing with no fear" becomes "blesssing-guh with no fearrrah.") Fine support is provided by Jeffrey Baldwin Gibson as the man of action de Soto, Brent Ries as the youthful man of manners Ruiz, and Paul Myers as the man of God Fray Marcos De Nizza. Caryn Weglarz's costumes, Lorra Lee's masks, and Brian Traynor's props convey the exotic grandeur of the Peruvian empire on Interplay's diminutive stage, as Marc Wilkinson's vaguely oriental score evokes an alien eeriness. Overall, however, Shaffer's epic tale requires sheer stamina as much as it does inspiration, and Interplay supplies both in abundance.

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