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The language ebbs and flows, tidal as liturgy, and the ideas spiral headily into passionate-philosopher territory, and the music is a koan insinuating itself: If the acting were anything like as hypnotic, the Washington Shakespeare Company would have a sensation on its hands. What it has instead, in Steven Scott Mazzola’s imaginatively lyrical staging of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, is an impressive, imperfect play impressively and imperfectly realized—an event to see, certainly, if not entirely one to celebrate.

See it, then, if only because there’s no telling when you’ll get another chance. Shaffer’s staggeringly ambitious account of Spain’s conquest of the Incas is the kind of large-scale dramaturgical experiment that deserves a deep-pocketed production at Arena Stage or the Shakespeare Theatre, a 32-character epic that sweeps from Renaissance Spain across the Atlantic, through the Peruvian jungle night to the shining golden cities of Atahuallpa, god-king of the agrarian nation there. Its famously blithe stage directions—“They cross the Andes,” Shaffer offhands at one point—reportedly led script readers to label it unproduceable until John Dexter dazzled British audiences with a inventive spectacle of a staging in 1964.

As it happens, that particular head-scratcher of an authorial imperative is one of the finest moments in WSC’s budget-conscious production. “Picture a curtain of stone hung by some giant across your path,” says Jim Jorgensen’s mournful narrator, remembering the nightmare passage that brought Francisco Pizarro and his troops at last into Atahuallpa’s heartland—“mountains set on mountains, cliffs on cliffs, hands of rock a hundred yards high, with flashing nails where the snow never moved, scratching the gashed face of the sun.” Mazzola understands in his bones that if language is theater’s music, actors’ bodies are the most expressive instruments a director can command, and that the best theater happens in the mind as much as on the stage—so with that poetry sketching in an outline of mountain ranges, his road-weary Spaniards build themselves an Andes out of their bodies, creating crags and ledges of shoulders and backs, clambering up and over each other like armor-slowed acrobats turning tricks for the sake of their very lives, until they conquer the summit and collapse, exhausted, at the feet and the mercy of the Incas. In this one moment, WSC’s production meets Shaffer’s expansive vision on its own terms, words and images fuse into something more than their sum—into the very essence of what makes theater such a visceral thing—and Mazzola’s cast becomes what the playwright imagines, “a tiny army lost in the creases of the moon.”

What you wish for, as the evening goes on, is more such moments. There’s less-assertive poetry, to be sure, in Ayun Fedorcha’s eloquent lighting and Matthew Soule’s clever-on-a-shoestring set (mostly a window-shade tapestry that scrolls to evoke a militarist Spain, a sleepy rural Peru, and the exotica of Atahuallpa’s court), and there’s lyricism indeed in the evocative music from Washington-based composer Mariano Vales, who scores the piece with both moody recordings and live music drummed and sung by the actors. There’s efficient drama in the restless way Mazzola keeps his cast moving across the wide expanses he has to work with in the Clark Street Playhouse—WSC will miss those, surely, when the tide of development finally washes it out of the place sometime in the coming year—and there’s a terrible clarity in his understanding of the play’s philosophical wrangles. Royal Hunt is as ambitious thematically as theatrically, engaging with everything from a single tormented soul’s existential anguish to the massed brutalities of an arrogant Church Militant to the quality of happiness in a utopia that knows neither need nor yearning, and at its best Mazzola’s production brings both a bracing rage and a surprising balance to the play’s questions.

At less than its best, however, it obscures them. The central figure of Pizarro, played with a certain physical charisma and a decidedly uncertain command of the vaulting language by James Foster Jr., is the weakest link, though by no means the only weak one. A wide range of abilities is to be expected in a show this big at a company this small and this welcoming of young performers, but there’s no escaping the effect: Strong, even moving portrayals—from Jorgensen as a haunted man recounting the naivetés of his youth and his imperialist culture, from Peter Pereyra as the doomed Inca, from Shane Wallis as a moody, disillusioned Hernando de Soto—share the stage with others that range from uneven (Brian Crane’s humane but fussy Franciscan monk) to outright excruciating.

As Pizarro confronts first his emptiness and his mortality, then his growing sense of identification with the monarch he will befriend and ultimately betray, Royal Hunt gathers itself and groans with the horror of the holocausts humankind keeps visiting upon itself. Or it should: At WSC, immobilized by a central performance that hurries its language and flattens its emotions, the play opens its throat and whimpers. There’s something to see in that, yes—and something to sorrow over, too.CP