Lindsay Marie Tierce and Will Little in Las Meninas.
Works of art based on historic anecdotes that may or may not be true can leave an audience wondering–but then surely that’s part of the point. And if they’re well enough done, they tell an emotional truth of their own, quite apart from those sticky things called facts.
In the case of playwright Lynn Nottage’s Las Meninas (now onstage at the Asolo Rep; the title refers to ladies-in-waiting, as you might expect if you’re familiar with the famous Velazquez painting), the facts as we are sure of them are these. King Louis XIV of France (Jud Williford) is married to his cousin, the Spanish-born Marie-Therese (Lindsay Marie Tierce), but not necessarily wildly in love with her, as he has the first of several mistresses during the period in which the play is set. Be that as it may, they are royal and related by blood as well as marriage, and that counts for a lot.
Early in their marriage (but after the birth of their first child), Marie-Therese receives a gift from another royal relative: an African dwarf named Nabo whom she quickly latches onto as a companion. After all, both are strangers to the French court, far from home, and unhappy. Nabo (Will Little) is not so quick to adapt to his newfound situation as a court fool, longing fruitlessly for escape; but over time and through circumstance, the two do grow closer.
Do they eventually have an affair and a child, who is whisked away to a convent and later known as the Black Nun of Moret? That is where the story diverges from what is known to what is surmised.
At any rate, in Nottage’s play it makes for an intriguing story, one filled with welcome moments of humor and 21st-century perspective as we peer into the royal bedroom. And, of course, this being the Asolo, the production values required for a sumptuous 17th-century period piece are superb. It’s a treat to savor the opulent costumes, the changing backdrops of actual paintings and famous surroundings, and the creative and well-executed set and lighting design.
But beyond that, Las Meninas is a great opportunity to appreciate the talents of several FSU/Asolo Conservatory students. At the forefront are Little, who’s compelling no matter what he’s doing (including performing some striking choreography by Leymis Bolanos Wilmott appropriate to his African heritage), and Tierce, who gives the pouting but pious Queen just the right mixture of naivete, selfishness and sweetness to make us care about her. As the alleged product of Marie-Therese’s relationship with Nabo, Devereau Chumrau also makes a favorable impression, although since she narrates much of the tale, her dialogue sometimes feels stilted.
Other engaging performances are turned in by Williford, whose Louis is self-indulgent and somewhat gullible but still every bit an autocratic king; Douglas Jones, as a cynical court painter who’s turned his eye on the royal family and their eccentricities for too long; and Barbara Redmond as the dry-witted Queen Mother, whose advice to the Queen has mixed results. Director Michael Donald Edwards has done some fine work here, both entertaining and touching us; any gaps in the play’s ultimate impact, are, I think inherent in the work itself.
Las Meninas continues through May 15; call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org for tickets.