Sunday, April 3, 2011

THE DEATH OF ATAHUALPA • Upstream Theater

I had no idea what to expect seeing this show.  See, this story is one that has been orally handed down through generations in the Andes Mountains in the language of the Incas -- Quechua.  It's receiving its world debut in English here in St. Louis, and chronicles the story of, that's right, you guessed it, the death of Atahualpa, the last of the lords of the Inca.  Spanish conquistadors captured him, took him for ransom, and killed him in 1533, spurring the decline of the Incan Empire.

A wonderfully fitting tone is set as you walk into the theatre, as members of the Latin band, Son de America, play Andean music and cast members engage with each other on the Kranzberg's sparse black set.  What unfolds in the next hour is a unique theatrical presentation of this age old folkloric tale.

Dennis Lebby serves as the announcer at the beginning.  He introduces the players and later plays the Franciscan monk, Valverde.  Valverde is charged with converting these Incan "savages" to Catholicism with a bible in one hand, while Pizarro, the invading "red bearded" Spaniard (Eric J. Conners) wields a sword in the other.  William Grivna in the title role is proud and defiant, but eventually falls victim to the Spaniards' quest for gold and silver.  Amy Loui as the Woman who weaves spends most of her time just offstage seated at a loom, and serves kind of as an observer to the happenings -- delivering the last monologue of the show as Atahualpa is killed and the Empire is thrown into grief and turmoil.  The rest of the cast is strong and completely involved in the story telling, because that's what this is -- the telling of a story.  I suppose you could argue that all theatre, musical theatre and opera are essentially all about story telling in one way or another, but this presentation -- as a dramatic retelling -- is different.  Trust me.

Eric J. Conners (Pizarro) and Bill Grivna (Atahualpa).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
In the director's notes from the program, Philip Boehm mentions that although the Incas did record their historical information on knotted cords called khipus, Quechua was a largely oral culture, in which inaccuracies are inevitable.  This is given a nod during the story as Pizarro, in the midst of addressing Atahualpa's seer (R. Travis Estes), "breaks the fourth wall" and informs the audience that he's not really sure he understands what all is being said, and that his Spanish isn't that great.  During a scene depicting the approaching Spaniards, there are these neat two-dimensional puppets used behind a board of plywood, and at one point the puppeteers argue about who should play which part.  A scene that takes you out of the action for a bit, but a reminder that this is again, a retelling of an oral history, where sometimes, facts can be blurred or exaggerated.

There was a reception after opening night, which of course I attended, cause I have a hard time passing up free food and champagne.  I talked with the director and a couple of actors for a bit about the show, and it's obvious they took a great amount of care and precision in reenacting an authentic representation of this history -- everything down to the movements on stage near the end of the play.  At the end, reenacted in beautiful tableaus, we see how the Incas were indoctrinated with Catholicism, but how also the Spaniards soaked in some of the culture of the Incas in return.

Eric Conners (Anutara).
Photo credit: Peter Wochniak
"With the collision of civilizations and the collision of empires, something has to give".  That's a line delivered by the monk, and although the invasion of a civilization is a familiar one, the chance to see this particular one is a special opportunity.  Not your average theatre experience for sure, but for me, an interesting one.


THE DEATH OF ATAHUALPA

Directed and adapted from the traditional oral drama by Philip Boehm
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through April 17 | tickets: $15 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm, final Sunday at 3pm

Cast:
Bethany Barr* (Umiña Mamani - Princess), Eric J. Conners* (Simón Quispe - as Anutara, Pizarro), R. Travis Estes* (Humberto Quillahuaman - Waylla Wisa), William Grivna* (Quripuma Katari - Atahualpa), Dennis Lebby* (Announcer - later as Valverde) and Amy Loui* (Awaq Warmi [Woman who weaves]).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Costume design by Michele Siler; scenic/lighting design by Patrick Huber; movement consultation by Carmen Dence; props, B. Taylor and J. Krieckhaus; special millinery, John Inchiostro.

Musicians (Son de America):
Cuatro, cajón, percussion, Rafael Arriojas; guitar, tenor, Juan A. Castizo; zampoña, charango, quena, Miguel Ticona.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a top-notch play! We regret having missed it in April 2011. Do you or the director anticipate producing it again? If yes, will you notify us by putting us on your mailing list?

    We wonder if someone video taped the play? We have seen Bill Grivna in other productions some years back and would enjoy seeing him again. If there is a video, might we rent or purchase a copy of it for our personal viewing?

    We are also fans of Son de America who provided the musical accompaniment for the production. If there is no video tape available, does an audio tape exist?

    BTW: As you may be aware, there are arts programs in both MO and IL that would be interested in bringing this historical/cultural production to area high schools and colleges if it can be arranged. Also, has anyone looked into a grant for future presentations of the play?

    We would appreciate any information you have available.

    Yours truly,
    Roger and Judy McNeilly
    80 Keeven Drive
    Highland IL 62249-2405
    jamcn@charter.net

    ReplyDelete

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