In "Admiral of the Ocean Seas" Samuel Eliot Morison used almost 700 pages to detail the epoch of Christopher Columbus. In "Make New Banners," sponsored by ASTA (the American Society of Theater Arts) at Georgetown's Grace Church, Valentine Mitchell Gammell attempts to compress the period's complexities into play form.
Her words are finely chosen and poetic, revealing a love of words for their essence. But the play is devoid of dramatic spine.
The relationship of Castile and Aragon, the interactions of Ferdinand and Isabella, the financial and navigational problems of Columbus, the effects of the Inquisition and Torgquemad's treatment of his sister all are related to the great voyages. But scattered scenes, often insufficiently developed, do not make for dramatic cohesion.
Producer-director Michael Field leans hard on the fashionable Theater of Cruelty for melodramatic effects, including a tragic childbirth episode, torture and burning at the stake. In balance, especially if one views Admiral Morison as THE authority, far too much is made of the Inquisition, its excesses semming of more interest to the director than the Columbus-Isabella-Ferdinand tangle.
The staging begins in the torch-lit churchyard to novel effect, but in performance there are awkward blank spaces between the scenes. The use of "The Herald" to make historical bridges is more of a dramatic crutch than a satisfaction.
There is low-key charm in the author's rich vocabulary, and Frank Muller's Columbus is well-spoken in a line-up of 15 characters.
The period music from Fred Strebe, Carol Duffy and Carol Clausen is lovely. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 9, with entrance on South Street, just off 1041 Wisconsin Ave. NW.