Contemporary critiques of European colonialism are nothing new, the idea of an already-populated New World as a place that could be “discovered” bitterly contested. But playwright Eric Samuelsen isn’t afraid to take that sticky subject and find both humor and food for thought.
Plan-B Theatre Company’s production of Amerigo sets up a “trial” involving four historical figures in purgatory: Niccolo Macchiavelli (Kirt Bateman); Amerigo Vespucci (Matthew Ivan Bennett); Christopher Columbus (Mark Fossen); and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Deena Marie Manzanares), a Spanish/Mexican nun and scholar of the late 17th century. Macchiavelli acts as ringmaster in an exercise to discover whether Vespucci or Columbus deserve credit for discovering America; Sor Juana is named judge, though in demeanor, she’s more an equal-opportunity prosecutor. And thus begins an exploration of historical evidence not so much for their exploits as for their crimes.
Samuelsen’s got an ambitious agenda on his plate, tackling subjects like sexism, power politics and Christian hypocrisy that could easily have resulted in a liberal diatribe. But he’s savvy enough to pepper Amerigo with a frisky, often dark sense of humor, with Bateman’s Macchiavelli particularly entertaining as he delights in the proceedings. As the “trial” unfolds, Samuelsen suggests that our America is inextricably tied to the two paradigms represented by Vespucci and Columbus—unapologetic capitalism, and unforgiving religiosity—as well as a culture that refuses to listen to the experience of the “other.” A terrific cast and Jerry Rapier’s rich direction add to an experience that immerses viewers in an American history that still informs our American present.