A lightly amusing, semi-burlesque costumier, Lynn Nottage’s new “Las Meninas” doesn’t penetrate deeply into the hidden chapters of Euro-African colonization, but it does provide an entertaining two hours’ historical exotica. Variably well-served by Michael Donald Edwards’ occasionally blunt premiere staging for San Jose Rep, the seriocomedy could withstand further authorial polishing and a more discerning director’s touch before progressing further on national stages.
The play (named after a famous painting by Diego Velazquez of the same period) is drawn from an obscure and understandably little-documented footnote to Louis XIV’s reign. His Spanish queen Marie-Therese was much devoted to Nabo, a dwarf from Dahomey who’d been given to her as a novelty gift. The extent of their intimacy can’t be known, but historians have long pondered the mysterious life of one Louise-Marie, a “black nun” who spent her entire life in a convent — cloistered there by royal decree. It’s easy to surmise the dark-complected woman might have been the secret, scandalous result of Marie-Therese and Nabo’s close bond.
In “Las Meninas,” the Queen (Mercedes Herrero) is in desperate need of company; her political marriage to the spectacularly frivolous Sun King (Mark H. Dold) barely rates his attention, while court society’s endless gossip and ceremony seems to exclude her as a vulgar outsider as well. The “present” of Nabo Sensugali (Daniel Bryant) — who pops gasping from a box in which he’s been trapped for three days — delights her, though he proves stubbornly resistant to playing the expected jester role. The two develop a certain dependency on one another, united partly by the fact that they’re both homesick for families and lands they had little choice in leaving.
Just before intermission, the lead duo consummate their friendship; resulting pregnancy can’t be hidden forever, and even some highly specious “scientific” pretzel-logic pegging the king as father doesn’t hold once the baby emerges a tell-tale brown. She’s immediately shuttled off to the nunnery, while Nabo is quietly executed.
Nottage brings a nice weight to some of these latter sequences, particularly a tense yet civil faceoff between king and captive. But most of “Las Meninas” is lighter in tone, even farcical at times. The playwright — and, particularly, director Edwards’ San Jose Rep production — brings more heartiness than wit or subtlety to the task, with variable results. The best scenes are usually well-judged two-handers. Larger setpieces suffer from routine handling and some flat supporting performances. The evening’s major flaw is its framing device, which makes sense structurally but proves a drag in both garrulous writing and leaden delivery.
Herrero manages to make the queen both a Billie Burke-style flibbertigibbet and a sympathetic figure. Bryant, diminutive enough to pass as a “pygmy” amidst aristocrats in towering elevator shoes, has a dancer’s grace in both bearing and delivery — even if the script’s view of Nabo’s dignity smacks of excess p.c. revisionism at times. Dold has his moments as the vacantly hedonistic Sun King; Ken Ruta does best among subsidiary players as a court painter and medico.
Physically, production is very handsome, with B. Modern’s splendid costumes and Gordana Svilar’s slyly expressionistic sets beautifully lit by Robert Jared. Jeff Mockus’ sound design rather predictably contrasts baroque music against African tribal sounds.