Plan-B Theatre Company: Amerigo

We are a country divided by two extremes. Piety and Greed. At least, that’s the idea put forth by playwright Eric Samuelsen in Plan-B’s Amerigo, performing April 8-18 at the Rose Wagner Studio Theater, and I think he’s correct. He’s also managed to balance those two extremes with two other extremes for America: power and guilt.

Plan-B’s latest production is a fascinating argument between Christopher Columbus (played by Mark Fossen) and Amerigo Vespucci (played by Matthew Ivan Bennett), about which one deserves to be called the true “discoverer of America”. An argument that is causing an uproar in Purgatory, and forces the issue to be moderated by Niccolo Machiavelli (played by Kirt Bateman), and judged by Mexican poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (played by Deena Marie Manzanares). The argument, funny at times, poignant in its modern relevancy at others, is both thought provoking and engaging, and well worth experiencing for yourself.

The play opens with Machiavelli leading the characters in presenting a scene from Aristophanes “The Frogs.” The scene, is an argument between Euripides and Aeschylus over which was the ‘best tragic poet’, with Columbus taking the role of Aeschylus and Vespucci taking Euripides. Naturally this argument between tragedians can’t last long without the two men dropping their ‘characters’ and resuming their dispute.

As the play continues, the arguments of each man is held up to the glaring light of history and their own words. Sor Juana accuses the men of raping and enslaving America as much as they raped and enslaved the natives they found there. Machiavelli does his best to moderate, interrogate, and dissect the arguments, as Sor Juana becomes just as much a participant as a judge in this dispute. Further usage of the play-within-the-play is utilized to shred arguments and bring the characters closer and closer to a resolution.

Now the fact that I’ve just devoted three paragraphs to explaining the plot tells you just how much I was drawn into this piece, to the point where I was more caught up in the discussion than in the presentation. Which, naturally, is a high compliment of the script, performances and direction of this play. Yes, there were elements that caught my attention, drew me out of my revelry, and reminded me that I was watching a play. Most were intentional, by both the playwright and director Jerry Rapier; they were necessary distractions to give everyone a break. A couple of times I felt the direction was holding perhaps too closely to the classical style, and did pull me out of the production as I wondered about the reasoning behind it. But to pull me out to make me think about the meaning of a direction is far different than pulling me out to wonder what the director was thinking. Ultimately, my highest praise is that I find myself thinking about this play even today, and know there are elements in it that will leave me considering it for weeks to come.

The set by Randy Rasmussen was simple, yet powerful. The characters had the world literally at their feet as they argued the relevancy of the discovery of America. In a beautiful moment, Machiavelli was explaining the power centers of Europe, kneeling and pointing to a very small portion of the map, and I realized just how tiny Europe is in comparison to the rest of the world, and to consider that it was the power-center of the 15th century really put all of this into a different perspective for me.

Bateman (Machiavelli) took a bit to warm into his role. Once he was settled, however, his performance was solid; both realistic and sympathetic. Fossen’s pious Columbus and Bennett’s restless Vespucci in the hands of lesser actors would have been distracting and annoying, to say the least. These two brought out a welcome realism in their performances, giving us multiple dimensions for their characters. The stand out performance for this production for me was Deena Marie Manzanares’ portrayal of Sor Juana. Everyone had a character arc, but Sor Juana’s was by far the most dramatic and most demanding, and Manzanares performed it with a talent and grace that drew me into her character and left me wanting more.

As of this writing, tickets for this production are 75% sold, so don’t wait. Get your tickets today.

Amerigo, Plan-B Theatre Company. Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center (138 West 300 South, Salt Lake City). Nightly curtain at 8:00 PM April 8-18; matinees on April 10, 17, & 18. For tickets call (801) 355-ARTS or visit

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