The sonorous, recorded narration that accompanies “The Sun Serpent” makes José Cruz González’s play feel like something that belongs in a museum rather than at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, where it opened Friday.
But don’t be fooled by the educational mission at the heart of this show about the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Mexico. Under the deft direction of Rachel Bowditch, and with a company of three splendid actors, “Sun Serpent” unfolds as a highly theatrical historical pageant. It is replete with multimedia spectacle, evocative masks and winning performances by Adrian Hernandez, Andres Alcala and Andrea Morales. These three actors ably play dozens of roles in a story that is told in English, Spanish and the Aztec tongue of Nahuatl (Mixed Blood uses surtitles).
The narrative orbits two brothers, Anáhuac (Hernandez) and Tlememe (Alcala). Anáhuac, the younger of the two, is fishing one day when he sees Cortés’ ships arrive. He believes that the conquistador is Quetzalcoatl, a god in his people’s pantheon who has come to free them from the oppressive Aztec emperor.
His brother joins the visitors and converts to Christianity, even as Anáhuac realizes that the visitors behave strangely. For one thing, Cortés (portrayed by Morales) has an ailment whose only cure is oro (gold).
For another, Cortés’ men destroy Anáhuac’s family, including his blind grandmother, Anci (Morales). And the Spaniards bring disease along with their fearsome weapons.
There is very little new historical information in “The Sun Serpent.” Its story of conquest through guns and disease in the name of religion applies across the Americas. What makes this play so captivating is the telling. The company’s three actors use masks that they switch frequently. These visages represent a spectrum of emotions, from scowls to quiet pain.
The masks, which the actors animate so well, help to quicken and, paradoxically, humanize history. We see very clearly the results of the clash of belief systems. The violence and pain give the show its gravity, but the production does not feel burdensome. “Sun Serpent” has bits of wry humor, including quick scenes where Cortés, who clearly is a shady figure, takes ill and needs more medicinal gold.
Anáhuac also meets a porter with a fondness for chiles. Another evocative scene includes a tree of mournful masks.
“The Sun Serpent” is a compact production that runs for just over an hour. It is rare to see a show that leaves you wanting more. But this epic, told with flair and without rancor, could go on a little longer.