Debates about the lives of millions living under the constant threat of terror are, apparently, not guaranteed to be exciting. Charged, perhaps, but a little theatrical electricity isn't always enough to fully illuminate every facet of any given subject, even when life and death truly hang in the balance. No, something more is required - a style, a verve, a unique point of view that elevates a solid idea from the commonplace to the transcendent.
That's what's missing in The Controversy of Valladolid, which just opened at the Public Theater's Newman Theater. You'd be hard pressed to find a more spellbinding - or horrifying - subject for a pseudo-courtroom drama than the 16th century extermination of indigenous Americans at the hands of the Spanish, but as presented here, the moments of insight are few and the instances of excitement even fewer.
If the play's problems are as easy to recognize as its considerable strengths, knowing exactly whom to blame for the failures is more difficult. Yet one is tempted to absolve the play's original French author, Jean-Claude Carriére, of most of it: The situations, as laid out here, suggest a keen eye for drama and an innate feeling for the motion needed to sustain a talky, heavy-issue play - with almost no action - for 100 intermissionless minutes. That's certainly not easy.
A likelier candidate is the author of the play's English adaptation, Richard Nelson. In Nelson's translation, the characters generally speak with the clipped, modern style he favors in his own plays. And if his translation usually avoids out-and-out anachronisms, it also never creates any real verbal music that can provide a sense of poetic gravity. Nothing about what the characters say or how they say it transports the audience directly to 1550 Valladolid, Spain, or immediately presses home the point that history-making events are underway. The characters, as Nelson has fashioned them, might as well be doing an SCA re-enactment of an episode of Law & Order.
Those characters, though, are sharply defined: Bartolomé de Las Casas (Gerry Bamman) is the chaplain with experience in the New World, who's seen first-hand many of the violent atrocities being committed against the natives, and who is arguing that they are every bit as human as the Spanish; Gines de Sepulveda (Steven Skybell) is the philosopher arguing the opposite, that the natives are not presently willing or able to understand and fulfill the word of God. The debate is overseen by the Pope's Legate (Josef Sommer), whose conclusion in the matter will be law - holy and otherwise.
The debate is central to the play, and covers much intellectual and historical ground: the relevance of Spanish conflicts with the Moors, the intersection of religious and secular law (the play continually stresses that all the central characters share a similar belief in God), and the behavior of occupying forces acting in the "greater good." (A few lines resonate, somewhat uncomfortably, with regard to current U.S. policy in the Middle East, though neither Nelson nor the performers do much to downplay these associations.) Even when some dramatic surprises threaten to derail the play - other characters introduced late in the action include a family of natives (Ron Moreno, Monica Salazar, Jeremy Michael Kuszel) and a clown (William S. Huntley III) sent to determine their humanity - director David Jones keeps the production firmly on course.
But even as new twists of plot and character are revealed (the play's ending, while not exactly surprising, is a shocker in context), the flat tonality of Nelson's text prevents much real excitement. Skybell, Sommer, and Graham Winton as a knowledgeable New World colonist do much to alleviate the boredom with their intricately detailed portrayals, and Huntley is undeniably amusing in his brief turn. Bamman, however, saddled with the play's largest, most important, and yet most thankless role, never rises above the banalities of his dialogue to turn in more than a cartoonish, disconnected performance.
The production is otherwise grounded in realism, with superb period costumes from Ilona Somogyi, an imposing and majestic physical depiction of the Monastery of San Gregorio setting from scenic designer Klara Zieglerova, and plenty of sensitive, natural-looking lighting from Mark McCullough. The designers realize that the show will play best when it's at its most natural.
Nelson, though, never makes it easy. It's not much of a surprise, then, that one of the production's most compelling performances is given by Gbenga Akinnagbe, as a black servant at the monastery, who never says a word. He communicates so much just through his natural stage presence and body language, as well as his important thematic connection to the underlying plot, that it's impossible to not wish that, throughout the rest of The Controversy of Valladolid, Nelson had respected the use of words - or the absence of them - more.
The Public Theater