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The Controversy of Valladolid

Presented by and at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC, Feb. 27-March 13. Casting by Jordan Thaler and Heidi Griffiths.

Maybe it's better in French. At the Public Theater, Jean-Claude Carrière's "The Controversy of Valladolid," in an English version by Richard Nelson, has a fascinating subject. But the rendering is mundane when it should be profound, flat when it should be fiery, repetitious when it should be complex.

To a monastery in Spain comes the Pope's Legate (Josef Sommer), a cardinal sent to hear arguments as to whether 16th-century New World Indians should be considered human beings or of a lesser species. Sepulveda (Steven Skybell), a philosopher, maintains the latter, while Bartolomé de Las Casas (Gerry Bamman), a Dominican, details the horrors visited upon the Indians by their greedy, "human" occupiers.

How can the natives be treated as equals, asks Sepulveda, if they have their own rituals and refuse to be converted? After all, they have been "conquered and subdued in the name of God."

Although ostensibly about the Spanish and the Indians, the drama's subtext implicates the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. One of the few bits of action has a zealous Spanish soldier threaten to kill the son of a captured Indian family.

The actors dive into the material, trying to make something significant out of a static debate that soon devolves into silliness. Sommer, Skybell, and Bamman are vigorous speechifiers. Also tackling the plodding dialogue, under director David Jones' helpless direction, are Herb Foster and Graham Winton. As the Indian family, Ron Moreno, Monica Salazar, and Jeremy Michael Kuszel have little to say, with Gbenga Akinnagbe as a black servant. William S. Huntley III is a clown hired to see if the family has a human sense of humor. He ain't funny.

The brooding, attractive physical production is by Klara Zieglerova (set), Mark McCullough (lighting), and Ilona Somogyi (costumes). The Gregorian chants used by sound designer Sten Severson have more weight than the play.

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