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More Drama Than Spectacle

Director Steven Scott Mazzola takes you to sixteenth century Peru in the fascinating new production of "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" playing at the Clark Street Playhouse through August 21.

It is an examination in dramatic style of the clash between the

invading Spanish Conquistadores in their leader Francisco Pizarro's

single-minded quest of gold and the indigenous population under the Sovereign Inca of Peru, Atahuallpa.

While a company with a bigger budget might put on a spectacle of

warriors in exotic costumes, lavish sets and a jewelry display to rival Bailey Banks and Biddle, Mazzola and the less financially endowed Washington Shakespeare Company rely on quality acting, solid direction and intelligent design to tell the fascinating story.

"The Royal Hunt of the Sun" was written by English playwright Peter

Shaffer in the early 1960s, well before he came up with his other famous historical play "Amadeus." Here he may be dealing in a historical subject, but he seems much more interested in the philosophical concepts of cultural conflict, greed and hubris than in an exploration of the historical forces at work in one particular event. He doesn't even mention the smallpox that the Spaniards brought with them to the "new world" and its impact on a native

population without immunity to the disease. The impact of horses or

firearms which they also brought, and for which the indigenous people were similarly unprepared, get only passing mention, and there's not a word about Pizarro's talent for enlisting the assistance of rival tribes in his battle against the forces of the Inca.

Instead, it is the conflict of belief and values between Pizarro and

his tiny band and the infinitely nobler Atahuallpa, and his nation, that fascinates here. Shaffer imagines Pizarro coming under the spell of the nobility of Atahuallpa, but not sufficiently to have him treat the ruler of the Inca empire of western South America with anything approaching what later generations would call a civilized manner.

JAMES FOSTER, JR. plays Pizarro, and seems at first to be rendering a fairly one-dimensional portrait of an insensitive commander bent on finding riches for his king. As the evening progresses, however, his Pizarro becomes more and more intrigued by the philosophical strengths of Atahuallpa.

Peter Pereyra, a member of Arlington's Teatro de la Luna theater

company, plays the Inca Atahuallpa with a fine combination of royal bearing, intellectual curiosity, and a religious strength mixed with tolerance.

As a result, what could have seemed a caricature is, instead, a touching portrait of a leader confounded by events outside his previous experience.

THE STRENGTH OF Pereyra's performance, as well as the importance of the role of Atahuallpa in the play itself, made it seem strange that he wasn't given equal treatment with Foster in the post-show curtain call.

Daniel Ladmirault's portrayal of an intolerant Catholic priest does

verge on the caricature. To be fair, it should be pointed out that the script doesn't give him much room for finely tuned nuance as he has to spout doctrinaire pronouncements and react with appalling rapidity to what his character views as heresies from the heathens.

The story is framed by an introduction and an epilogue by Jim Jorgensen as the man who, in his youth, had been Pizarro's page. Matt Mazzacappa plays that young page during the actual time of Pizarro's mission. The two actors share the stage as they watch events from the dual perspectives of real-time experience and memory. The technique gives the entire evening an additional

element of theatricality that is intriguing.

This production has a fine physical design although it doesn't attempt to impress with sumptuousness. Instead, Matt Soule's set creates different locations through the unrolling of a continuous tapestry while Ayun Fedorcha's pools of light direct your attention to important parts of the large playing space in the Clark Street Playhouse's nearly cavernous hall.

Cynthia Abel Thom's costumes look more like what soldiers actually in the field might wear than the splendor of a Hollywood movie's romantic view of history. She may not have had the budget to outfit the members of the native court as elegantly as might be found elsewhere, but there's no mistaking the wealth of Atahuallpa's royal entourage.

Shaffer's fascination with an east meets west conflict that is rarely

treated on stage, and Mazzola's attention to the essential intellectual

elements of his script, make this an absorbing evening of theater.

WHERE AND WHEN: The Washington Shakespeare Company's production of "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" plays Thursday - Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday -Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 South Clark Street.

Tickets are $22 - $30. Call 1-800-494-8497 or log onto

www.washingtonshakespeare.org.

Brad Hathaway has covered theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as on Broadway. He edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.