Play:        “The Death of Atahualpa”

Group:        Upstream Theater

Venue:        Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand

Dates:        April 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17

Tickets:    $15-$25; contact or or 314-863-4999

Story:    A contemporary troupe of performers introduces the audience to a drama that re-enacts the historical conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru and its leader, Atahualpa, at the hands of an invading Spanish army led by conquistador Fernando Pizarro in 1533.  Players act out the parts of Atahualpa and Pizarro as well as Valverde, Pizarro’s aide and priest; Felipillo, a cunning and deceptive native interpreter; a princess; a weaver; a young seer; and a mythical beast.

    The cast tells the Andean oral traditional story, translated from its original Quechuan language by Bolivian scholar Jesus Lara into a bilingual Quechuan-Spanish version that in turn has been adapted by Philip Boehm.  “Atahualpa” recounts the exploits of Pizarro and his soldiers in their quest to find legendary treasures of gold and silver deep in the Inca Empire in South America, and how Atahualpa is captured, forced to accept Christianity and then betrayed and executed even after acceding to Pizarro’s demands for riches.

Highlights:    Boehm, artistic director of Upstream Theater, frequently presents works from cultures beyond the mainstream of American performance, in the process expanding the appreciation of his audiences for works foreign and exotic.  Such is the case with “Atahualpa,” which Boehm has painstakingly adapted and directed, not only into English but as a play within a play.  He accompanies the on-stage theatrics with the flavorful music of Son America, a trio comprised of Rafael Arriojas, Juan Castizo and Miguel Ticona, who play a variety of South American instruments and Peruvian melodies.

Other Info:    The high point of Upstream’s presentation is the Quechuan viewpoint of an historic event familiar to most Americans through Eurocentric history books.  Just as General Custer’s campaign against the Sioux is seen in a different light today, this telling of Pizarro’s conquest of Peru casts a damning shadow as it shows on the conquistador’s legend as an invading and avaricious marauder in the eyes of the people whose land and culture he usurped.  An informative glossary in the program notes helps define certain characters and customs, and the director’s notes are both thoughtful and enlightening.

    Certain technical elements work beautifully to support Boehm’s adaptation, such as Patrick Huber’s stylized set design that incorporates regional weavings suggesting the Jalq’a style of Bolivia, and Huber’s illustrative lighting that underpins the depictions on stage.  Michele Siler’s costumes are illuminating both in the players’ attire and in the period costumes they subsequently adopt, while Bonnie Taylor and Julie Krieckhaus contribute some clever and amusing puppetry that offers an additional dimension to the story in a background setting.

    Boehm keeps the performance tight at a little less than one hour, but still it comes across as precious and delicate more often than insightful, particularly a denouement that is almost comically stagy rather than poignant in its goal to depict the Quechuan view of time as more cyclical than linear.

    The cast, comprised of Dennis Lebby, William Grivna, Bethany Barr, R. Travis Estes, Eric Conners and Amy Loui, enthusiastically undertakes the daunting task of translating Boehm’s vision of this centuries-old tale, and successfully maintains the mood of the piece most of the time.

Still, this world premiere adaptation of “The Death of Atahualpa” seems more educational than theatrical, an exercise that illuminates more than entertains.  Given that the Incas did not have writing but instead communicated with a system of knotted cords called khipus for conveying information (depicted by Loui as a weaver), it’s surprising that this presentation isn’t any livelier.

Rating:        A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.