Lynn NottageĀ's Powerful If Somewhat Incoherent Las Meninas Receives a Strong Staging at UMBC
Las Meninas, by the redoubtable African American playwright Lynn Nottage, has some puzzles associated with it. One is the title, also the name of a famous Velasquez painting at the Prado in Madrid. True, both the play and the painting shine a light on dwarves (or more correctly little people) and on Marie-Thérèse, bride of Louis XIV and hence Queen of France. But the name of the painting, which roughly means "Ladies in Waiting," tells us that the painting is about something more. In the painting, the ladies in waiting matter. In the play, the ladies in waiting are essentially extras. Unless of course the playwright is telling us that the little person and the Queen are themselves "in waiting." I think that is indeed the point, but I have not heard that Nottage herself has said this.
Another puzzle is that the play is not more frequently performed. Nottage said, at the time of a 2002 production, that it had taken 10 years to get it produced. And it seems to have been staged only a handful of times overall. It is a formidable and crowd-pleasing play with some imperfections, and would profit from multiple productions.
And that readiness to be produced more frequently derives directly from perhaps the hardest of the puzzles: exactly what tone should be stricken in staging it. Nottage herself has said she thinks the play is "very funny." I can see where there are laugh lines here and there, but the tragedy and Nottage's anger are so close to the surface much of the time that I think if a production tried to maximize both those and the funny bits, it would tear the play to pieces, and everyone in the audience would go home dissatisfied. This play is a problem that can only be solved by a consensus wrought by multiple passes at it by different directors and theater companies, and clearly we haven't had that yet.
In the meantime, however, the production at University of Maryland Baltimore County, directed by Eve Muson, is a very honorable stab at a solution, turning the ordeal of Marie-Thérèse (Katherine Hileman) into a sort of surreal trip, a la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which cues us not to take the sinister aspects of it with total seriousness. Hence, for instance, designer Elena Zlotescu's costumes of most of the characters most of the time are lavish, based on 17th Century French court patterns, no doubt, but deliberately exaggerated, all in diaphanous white, with wigs made of ribbons rather than hair. The back of the set (also by Zlotescu) is a panel of semi-transparent mirrors that arches forward towards the audience, so as characters come downstage, they simultaneously rise over our heads - except when there is an illuminated scene perceptible behind the mirrors. In other words, the funhouse mirrors aren't even reliable as funhouse mirrors. The French courtiers look and move like French courtiers - except when they are engaged in African tribal dance. And in the action, little seems comforting, familiar, or real.
Such staging works well, because this is a play centered on three characters who can never find their way to comfort or reality. Each has been rendered an outsider by the demands of a world they never made. Marie-Thérèse, no longer Velasquez' slim infanta but now a hefty woman with unmet carnal needs and a faithless husband, is a Spaniard in a French world. Nabo, the little person from Dahomey (now Benin) essentially enslaved to her as a jester, is pitifully longing for his home, and well aware that intimacy with the Queen is likely to prove fatal to him. And their unacknowledged daughter, locked for life in a convent where the truth about her origins is hidden and her curiosity about it chastised, longing for parents she will never see and sunlight she will never experience, is an outsider to the entire world.
Nottage's critique goes deeper and is even more painful, however. Marie-Thérèse reaches out to Nabo because she senses their shared status as outsiders, yet she is not at all above hiding behind her status as queen and what we would today call white privilege, when it suits her. She selfishly exploits Nabo for a fix of intimacy just as fully as Louis has exploited her for dynastic purposes and reasons of state, and she casts him aside with little more consideration when that works best for her. It's bad to be Spanish in Louis' France, but worse to be black. And being oppressed doesn't mean you're not an oppressor. Truths like these might be funny in a way, but not barrel-of-laughs funny.