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Lynn Nottage’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.

               Another example: toward the end, Nabo bargains for his life with the King, who is minded to put Nabo to death.  Nabo throws out piquant jest after jest, and we can see the King responding with amusement and a jest or two of his own.  But Nabo isn't closing the sale.  You can call this funny, but if you try to make too much of these laughs, you compromise the anger, and shortchange the final image in the play, which I won't give away, except to say that it called to mind the last sentence of George Orwell's 1984.  I doubt there is a perfect way to play this.  Muson's direction tends to proceed on the comedic side, but not to excess.

               And of course the actors are students, which means that their individual capabilities to embody directorial choices are themselves still somewhat works in progress.  In one or two cases you can identify the actors these youngsters are going to become, but can see they haven't quite become them yet.  For instance Katherine Kopajtic, who handles the double role of the Mother Superior of the daughter's convent and of the Queen Mother, had the audience pulling for her and laughing on cue; they could see where Kopajtic was going with the two sophisticated older characters, one who has chillingly signed on to the convent's role as oubliette for inconvenient byproducts of the nobility's dalliances, the other a glorified courtesan who imbues amorality with wit.  And yet she's still a little too young to milk the roles properly, and a little too lispy, and gives away a little bit too much awareness that she is acting.  Given probably not much more maturity, gravitas, and diction, she could be very good indeed at these older roles.  And she is already good enough to (as I say) telegraph where the director was trying to send the production.  And from a director's standpoint, that's half the battle.

               The acting standout was Keilyn Durrel Jones as Nabo.  I have seen actors challenged to act while dealing with strange demands, but never have I seen an actor spend an entire play on his haunches to embody a little person.  His resulting gait is actually not that different from a little person's, but it can take great skill to allow the audience to forget the device most of the time.  To Jones' credit he succeeds quite well at it.  His other accomplishment is West African diction, which he deploys in a guarded way, saying little, but all very much to the purpose.  Somehow the strangeness in his voice underlines the power of the strange truths his character utters.

               Katherine Hileman as Marie-Thérèse spouts her own accent, Spanish, with great relish, and to like effect.  But she is perhaps less successful because of contradictions in her role, which I am not sure can be fully realized by any actress.  Nottage seems to want her to be simultaneously as graceless and artless as a milkmaid and a regal queen.  Hileman does very well with the milkmaid part, but the regal part seems missing a lot of the time you'd expect to see it.  And finally Sadé Stanback, as Louise, the illegitimate daughter facing a novitiate that is also a life prison sentence, has her own contradictions in the play as written to deal with.  She seems to know all the details of her conception one moment and to be in painful ignorance about them the next.  Given that Louise is both the narrator and a character in a narrative not chronologically exposed, the author may be able to reconcile these contradictions, but I think it is a drag on the play - and it is certainly a drag on the characterization skills of any actress.  Stanback does a fine job of bringing what consistency she can to this incoherence, being at the same time pained by and proud of the story of how her character came to be, however much of it her character seems to know at any given moment.

               In any case, this is as interesting a play as you are going to see in a while, and it is a worthy and challenging training vehicle for an excellent troupe of youngsters.  And by the time you walk out, I guarantee you will have gasped more than once at the power of the material on display.  Catch it quickly, as it is not playing much longer.

               Las Meninas, by Lynn Nottage, at UMBC Theatre, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, MD 21250, through November 21.  Tickets $10, $5 for students and seniors.  410 455-2917. Sexual situations, some sexual activity, explicit language.

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