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A CurtainUp Review
The Controversy of Valladolid

What interests me most about religion is that it brings out the best and the worst in people. You get the whole spectrum of behavior. ---Jean-Claude Carrière during an interview in The Village Voice in which he went on to say that this is especially true of Christianity a religion because of its unwillingness to "just to let other people be" instead of feeling compelled to convert them.

Steven Skybell and Gerry Bamman
Steven Skybell and Gerry Bamman
(Photo: Michael Daniel)
Watching The Controversy of Valladolid, which has just opened its New York premiere at the Public Theater, it's hard to believe that it was written before the Iraq War, especially since Richard Nelson's English version of Jean-Claude Carrière's play makes sure that the parallels to current events are never far from the surface. The play written for French TV in 1992 is based on an actual Vatican debate during 1550 over the legal and moral status of the indigenous population of the Americas. Listening to Bartolome de Las Casas (Gerry Bamman) and Gines de Sepulveda (Steven Skybell) engage in what might well be viewed as the first human rights debate is clearly meant to evoke echoes of current prisoner abuse reports and President George W. Bush's statements and policies.

Mr. Carrière's play fits into the season's penchant for legal dramas. Like Sin (review), Controversy does not have a regular courtroom setting but takes place in a sepulchral chamber of the Monastery of San Gregorio with the Pope's Legate (Josef Sommer) acting as judge and jury. The defendant of the conquered Mexican natives' right to be free and treated as humans is Las Casas, who is appalled by Western brutality that he has witnessed first-hand as a priest in the colonies. To make a case for the natives being heathens and lesser humans who should be enslaved by their Christian conquerors (and superiors), is Sepulveda is an Ivory tower style scholar who wants to apply Aristotelian principles that would treat the natives as inferior heathens destined to be enslaved by their Christian conquerors and moral superiors.

David Jones has taken advantage of the large Anspacher Theater stage to give the drama the required solemnity and grandeur and to infuse the reenactment of the historical controversy with rich ritual detail. Scenic designer Klara Zieglerova's tall brick columned set, atmospherically lit by Mark McCullough, evokes the monasterial setting and Ilona Somogyi has outfitted the able cast in lush period costumes.

All the atmosphere in the world and the best efforts on the part of the actors (especially Sommer as the stick to the issue presiding Legate), however, can't prevent this from being weighed down by lengthy monologues, to be more drama than lecture. Thus, even the most compelling speeches (e.g.-- De Casa's account of the horrific abuses in the new world) eventually succumb to dramatic stasis.

The playwright offsets the lecture elements by introducing "witnesses" -- a frightened family of Indians (Monica Salazar, Ron Morina as the couple and Jeremy Michael Kuszel as their child) who have been sent for by the Legate to test the opposing views as to whether they are savages or human beings entitled to be free and fairly treated. There's also a colonist (Graham Winston) to represent Spain's political interests in slavery, a clown (William Huntley III) to test the Indians' ability to laugh like "normal" people, and a giant inanimate creature, a symbol of heathen worship. While some people might respond to the absurdism of these more animated scenes, they struck me as forced and not especially funny, though fight director B. H. Barry does deserve a hand for his expert supervision of a fight staged by the Legate between the Colonist and the hapless Indians.

Some of the more obvious ironic allusions do hit home (i.e. Sepulveda's "It's well known that the Muslims, having spread their evil over a vast empire for centuries, are now weakened. Every indication is that their end is near."). And Carrière does manage to top the Legate's final judgment on the fate of the indians with a surprise twist that enables the Church to maintain its long-standing marriage with the State. Unfortunately, the most controversial aspect of The Controversy of Valladolid is whether its all too familiar arguments are debate-worthy and entertaining enough to keep viewers from looking at their watches long before this lengthy debate comes to its intermissionless end.

Written by Jean-Claude Carriære; translated by Richard Nelson
Directed by David Jones.
Cast: Gbenga Akinnagbe, Gerry BammanHerb Foster, William S. Huntley III, Jeremy Michael Kuszel, Ron Moreno, Monica Salazar, Steven Skybell, Josef Sommer and Graham Winton.
Set Design: Klara Zieglerova
Costume Design: Ilona Somoghi
Lighting Design: Mark McCullough
Sound Design: Sten Severson
Fight Director: B. H. Barry
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, with no intermission
Public Theater/Newman 25 Lafayette Street; on-line at 212-239-6200
From 2/15/05 to 3/13/05; opening 2/27/05.
Tues through Sat @ 8:00PM, Sat & Sun @ 2:00PM, Sun @ 7:00PM
Tickets: $50

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 25th performance
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