Royal Hunt of the Sun, directed by Jeremy Blumenthal, depicts the adventures of the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro and his men as they attempt to conquer 16th century Peru, subdue the Incas, procure tons of gold and use the word "pissin'" as often as possible. Unfortunately, the quagmire of prejudice, greed and indecision in which Pizarro and his men find themselves is not engaging enough to entice the audience. This production is interminable.
The Royal Hunt of the Sun
Directed by Jeremy Blumenthal
At the Loeb Mainstage Theater
Through October 17
Since the performance is based on an extremely patriarchal script by Peter Shaffer, casting decisions in the production are not surprising, just disappointing. The only female players to be found on the Mainstage are cast in the roles of sympathetic yet incomprehensible male Incas. It seems insensitive to make a conscious effort to cross-cast and yet cast women in only savage and subordinate roles.
Given the problems inherent in the subject matter coupled with a largely indistinguishable ensemble cast, the talented performances offered by John Ducey as Pizarro and Peter Mitchell in the role of Hernando De Soto are unexpected gems. These two stand alone among their 20 or so comrades as actors who can captivate the audience.
Ducey holds up admirably throughout the production. He is a thoroughly human Pizarro--cynical, yet not a stranger to hope. He is authoritative but quick to praise his men. And Ducey successfully captures the complex contradictions inherent in his character--while Pizarro has genuine respect and love for the Incan god incarnate, Atahuallpa, he is aware of his duty to the Spanish crown and church.
As De Soto, Mitchell handles his role with remarkable finesse. The role is a difficult one--De Soto is both trusted advisor and all of observer. Mitchell's use of telling intonation and facial expressions results in a performance that is brilliantly frank. Mitchell's rapport with the audience is enhanced by the fact that his character often mirrors what the audience is feeling--near the end of the first act, De Soto falls asleep during one of Pizarro's characteristically lengthy soliloquies.
Ducey's strong performance detracts from the presence of Pizarro's intended foil--his idealistic young apprentice, Martin Ruiz. This is actually a good thing since Ruiz's character is generally weak. We are supposed to view the action through the eyes of Pizarro's young apprentice, but Ruiz is too dull to wrest the audience's attention from the veteran explorer.
Actor Christopher Hall perhaps takes his role as Ruiz a bit too literally. In one scene, Ruiz declares to Pizarro that he wants nothing more than to be in Peru with his master. "Being your page is enough, sir," Ruiz says. Submission seems to be Hall's implicit motif throughout the performance, as he is completely unable to assert his character. He is too burdened with flat delivery and inertia.
Thankfully, Royal Hunt of the Sun manages to rise above the Peruvian swamp in which its characters (and audience) find themselves, but only when Ducey or Mitchell is permitted on stage. As Spanish explorers curious about the culture they hope to subsume, they provide the best moments in the play. Mercifully, the play becomes less patriarchal than anthropological when Pizarro and De Soto stop being conquerors and become students.
The dynamics between Pizarro and Incan ruler Atahuallpa (Alex Pak), for example, are wonderful. The two gradually learn to interact as equals who allow free rein to their mutual fascination. Atahuallpa and Pizarro strike up a humorous, thought-provoking dialogue in the midst of adversity. While Atahuallpa is held prisoner by the Spaniards in his own palace, he jokes with Pizarro, "Your pope is mad, he gives away countries that are not his." Later, he quips of transubstantiation, "First [Christ] becomes a biscuit and then they eat him and then they drink his blood!"
The pair swaps stories about cultural conceptions of god and human love while Incas are being murdered by the thousands outside the mountain palace. It seems sadly appropriate that the Incas are this expendable--they are never fully developed as characters, devoid of language and hidden by literal and figurative masks.
Considering the amount of talent possesed by certain cast members and some pretty nifty scenery provided by producers Andrea Schwartzman and Ayse Yuksel and set designer Tom Gluck, it's a shame that these bright spots must, once they've been extricated, be placed back in the context of a "royal hunt" that is largely unsuccessful.