Big themes dominate small stage

THEATER

November 13, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun is a hulking bear of a play. The subject is huge - the conquering of the Peruvian Incas by Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century. The themes - greed, imperialism, religious hypocrisy - are equally daunting. The play's physical demands aren't skimpy, either. It calls for a cast of at least 20, not counting the musicians who perform the incidental score.

Even so, the play is one that director Barry Feinstein has been eager to stage for years, and the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre has finally given him his chance. But while Feinstein may be one of Baltimore's more ambitious and accomplished community-theater directors, Shaffer's 1964 play conquers him and his hard-working, well-meaning cast.

Part of the problem lies with the script. Shaffer creates a modicum of sympathy for the Spanish; this takes the form of a remorseful narrator (J.R. Lyston), who represents the elderly version of Pizarro's young page (Tom Moore). But aside from this crumb, the play is an indictment not only of the Spanish invaders, but of any imperialistic force that seeks to subjugate a native culture. It is, in other words, essentially a tract, dressed up with colorful period and native trappings.

Not only are the Incas far more civilized and humane than the Spanish, but once the Inca king, Atahuallpa (Oscar Ceville), is taken prisoner, it is he who converts avaricious Pizarro (Mark Steckbeck) to his point of view, instead of the other way around. And though the growing friendship between the two men is of some interest, their conversations, particularly on religion, come across more like debates than drama.

For a little theater, a cast of the size demanded by this play is almost bound to be uneven, and though most of the principals (notably Steckbeck, Moore, Lyston and Mark Poremba as Hernando de Soto) acquit themselves well, a number of actors in smaller roles seem uncomfortably self-conscious.

This becomes especially apparent in some of the group scenes, such as one in which Pizarro's men mime climbing the Andes, an event Feinstein stages by clumping the actors together and having them reach agonizingly over and above each other in a manner that resembles an acting exercise, instead of the finished product.

"This story is about ruin. Ruin and gold," Pizarro's now-aged page says at the start of the play. "So fell Peru," he concludes in the final scene. "So fell Spain, gorged with gold; distended; now dying." Important though it may be to remember this chapter of history, importance and drama aren't always the same thing in Shaffer's pageant/political treatise on the subject.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 29. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 410-752-1225.

`Orlandus'

A different example of stalwart ambition is on stage at Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Center, where first-time playwright Dean Strober has written and produced a play with music called Orlandus, about the Golden Gate Quartet.

The quartet, which began in Virginia in the 1930s and is still active in Europe (with different members), popularized a syncopated, a cappella style of music called the jubilee spiritual. And, the best part of Strober's slow-moving chronicle is the music, performed by four members of the acclaimed Morgan State University Choir in the lead roles - Kevin McAllister, Larry Boggs, Soloman Howard and Michael Robinson II.

Strober focuses on Orlandus Wilson (Howard), the youngest original member of the quartet. The script goes on and on and on about his mother's reluctance to allow him to leave home. (On the plus side, Orlandus' mother, played by Cab Calloway's daughter, Cecelia, gets several opportunities to display her own considerable vocal skills.)

The script also gets bogged down by several scenes featuring a couple of old codgers in Orlandus' hometown of Portsmouth, Va. Sitting on the porch of the general store, spitting tobacco and casting aspersions on Orlandus' chances at success, these two contribute little other than cornpone humor.

The action picks up a bit when the quartet's career takes off. A regular gig on a radio show in Columbia, S.C., leads to an appearance at Carnegie Hall, followed by an engagement at New York's legendary Cafe Society nightclub. Eventually the quartet becomes the first African-American group to perform at Washington's Constitution Hall. But though we see the membership of the quartet undergo various changes, we never find out what led the group to relocate to Paris in the 1950s, where it is still based.

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