Seeing as how the Catholic Church is already getting it in the neck this season for child sex abuse (“Doubt,” “Sin”), Jean-Claude Carriere’s fierce attack on that beleaguered religious institution for its policies on human slavery makes for a refreshing change. Although based on a Spanish papal tribunal of 1550, Carriere’s stern historical drama hits a resounding contempo note with its revelations of how the church agonized over its ultimate conclusion that indigenous American natives were children of God after all — after invading their land, destroying their culture, plundering their natural resources and subjecting thousands of people to servitude, torture and death.
Stunning production helmed by David Jones (former a.d. of RSC and BAM Theater Company) blows away the library dust and gives a stylish gloss to archival material by reconfiguring the 16th-century papal tribunal as a TV-ready courtroom drama. Vivid perfs from war-horse thesps (all of them Shakespeare vets) respect the content of the metaphysical arguments while pumping up the dramatic tension.
The only downer in this respectable enterprise is the heavily idiomatic voice of the English translation by Richard Nelson (“Rodney’s Wife”). Dumbed down for modern sensibilities, the demystified theological arguments still carry beaucoup weight in theatrical terms. But the sonorous language of the period is drained of its beauty and strikes an incongruously dull note against the stately grandeur of Klara Zieglerova’s brick-pillared set of an ancient Spanish monastery and the lush colors and textures of Ilona Somogyi’s ecclesiastical costumes.
Carriere is one savvy political dramatist who doesn’t need this hand-holding treatment to bring out the contemporary reference points of his attack drama. As the papal legate (a regal figure in Josef Sommer’s elegant perf) succinctly puts the issue being debated, the church cannot justify Spain’s barbaric treatment of the natives of West India until it determines whether or not these New World creatures are “completely and truly human” — as opposed to “a distinctly other species, or even subjects of the devil himself.”
It really isn’t necessary for the pope’s spokesman to adopt a blunt American idiom in expressing his reservations about invading a sovereign nation that worships different gods: “Must we always intervene with our army? Is it necessary that we become the police of the Earth?”
We get it, we get it already.
Nor does Bartolome de las Casas (the soul of a bleeding-heart liberal in Gerry Bamman’s moist perf) need to be quite so obviously a blue stater in the language of his antiwar stance: “For centuries, the Muslims, their holy war we called an infamy. Now we fight our own?”
Of the three principals, though, it is Gines de Sepulveda, the Aristotelian philosopher, who really jumps the timeline to pound the point home with his convoluted argument that those who worship false gods must be wiped out for the sake of their immortal souls. Although Steven Skybell plays this tongue-twisting genius with admirable restraint, whispers of “Rumsfeld! Rumsfeld!” swept through the theater whenever he made a particularly cold-blooded statement about the ignorant savages.
As political theater, this “Controversy” should satisfy its target audience of true believers. But had it found a more eloquent voice to make its case, it might have moved — or even converted — a much larger public.