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Monday, 04 April 2011 20:03

Death of a Golden God

Written by Steve Callahan
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The Details

  • Director: Phillip Boehm
  • Dates: April 1 - 17, 2011
www.upstreamtheater.org
www.upstreamtheater.org

Upstream Theatre has opened a production of The Death of Atahualpa at the Kranzberg.  It's a world premiere of a traditional folk-play from Peru, and it's another in the lengthening series of fascinating works that is making Upstream my favorite company in town. But there are some significant problems with this new piece

Author/director Phillip Boehm is a prolific translator. This time he has adapted a folk play from the Quechua oral tradition. In all lands, in all times, iconic myths and legends are treasured because they define us as peoples. So it was with the Greeks and their drama; so it was with the medieval "miracle plays"—Bible stories staged by craft guilds; so it is today with Christian "passion plays" seen around the world—and floridly produced throughout Catholic Latin America. The Death of Atahualpa is, if you will, the passion play of the last Inca god-king, acted out by Peruvian peasants commemorating their ancient glory.

Like Christ, Atahualpa was the son of the sky god and was himself divine. Like Christ he was not the legitimate son of his earthly father. Like Christ he was betrayed, tried on trumped-up charges, convicted and sent to a painful death. Like Christ, he is expected to return. So his story is indeed a very Passion Play.

When you enter the theatre you are greeted with lovely, authentic Peruvian music, played by the group Son de America. They continue to give gorgeous support throughout the evening. Patrick Huber's set is simplicity itself—a ramp at the rear and a sloping softly golden wall. Strands of thick llama-wool drape the front and side of the stage, and lead to a native loom where an Indian woman weaves and watches. Michele Siler's costumes are beautiful and ring very true.

The peasant troupe is introduced and the play begins. The story is primitive and simple. Atahualpa and an Inca priest—in quite glorious feathered head-dresses—await the arrival of Pizarro and his Spaniards. There's an Inca princess. From time to time we see cut-out puppets above the sloping wall portraying the Spanish ship, a mounted conquistador, the Spanish king. They are so simple and so genuine.

Pizarro arrives in a wonderfully comic false red beard. He brings his translator and also his priest, who demands that Atahualpa submit to Christianity and the Spanish king. The god-king is imprisoned, golden ransom is brought in, and in the end Atahualpa is killed. The Inca empire dies with him.

I was eager to enter into this sacred pageant, eager for rustic ritual and racial memory. But my hopes ran aground. I think there was mis-casting. This is a deeply ethnic play, but all of the Inca roles are cast with pretty much white-bread Anglo actors. It simply doesn't work. It was a little like watching a white production of Porgy and Bess. More importantly, Bill Grivna as Atahualpa, and Travis Estes as his priest never seem quite comfortable in this very stylized mode. (And a minor point: Grivna, over sixty and with shoulder-length white hair, is playing a man who was killed at thirty-three.)

Others in the cast are not so dissonant. The gaunt Dennis Lebby, as the priest, is a convincing peasant-player, Bethany Barr makes a lovely princess, and Eric Connors plays Pizarro—and also a magical spirit dog—with a wonderful, graceful physicality.

But in a way the play really belongs to Amy Loui, the weaving Indian woman. She watches with rapt attention, she whispers and croons the wonder of it to her baby. She's utterly earnest, utterly convincing. And at the end it is she who carries the message of the play as she walks the stage, embodying the Inca belief that the dead and the past are always with us. It is in this final moment that Phillip Boehm is beautifully successful in bringing us the Inca world-view.

Additional Info

  • Director: Phillip Boehm
  • Dates: April 1 - 17, 2011

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