Friday, March 18, 2011

Here comes the Sun King

In 1984, George Orwell wrote about an elite society of bastards who've taken control of the human mind for all time. This may seem to have little connection to Lynn Nottage's Las Meninas, but bear with me.

Nottage's play
Las Meninas takes its title from a Velasquez painting of the Spanish court in the 16th century. (Literal English translation: Ladies in Waiting). The painter is visible in the background. In the foreground, there's a cute little blonde girl in a circle of dwarves.

That little blonde-haired girl, it turns out, was a Spanish princess who's destined to marry the king of France
Louis 14 aka the Sun King. (Not my favorite person. He killed my ancestors. Don't get me started.) Destiny aside, their marriage was one of political convenience. Nottage shows you how inconvenient it turned out to be ...

Hitching the Spanish Princess up to the French Sun King ends the war between Spain and France. C'est bonne. C'est fini. That settled, Louis Quatorze sets his sights on his mistresses and doesn't touch his legitimate wife. The Spanish princess seethes with frustration. Merde! Caca! To placate her, Louis gives her a present: a pygmy in a box, freshly captured in Africa. AKA, Nabo Sensugali.

In Nottage's play, it's just a matter of time before the pygmy and the sexually-frustrated Ibernian princess start doing the nasty. Is that a historical fact? I dunno. Wikipedia doesn't confirm it, so what can I say?

History aside, there's no easy one-liner to explain the irrational hatred of white people to black people. The Spanish princess screwed the pygmy. Sensugali was buff; Louis XIV was a lardass; she screwed the cute African. Why the hell not? Who cares? Who knows?

I don't know. History (at least on Wikipedia) doesn't say. The elite French bastards of the 16th century did their best to erase this story from history
they stuffed Sensugali and his daughter in some Orwellian memory hole. Nottage was determined to pull the story out. So did she? Are they facts? Did they do it? I dunno. It seems plausible enough. But Nottage pulled the narrative out of the fire. (I can't fact-check it. But I'm willing to bet she did.) Her story feels like truth.

The result is a memory play a narrative told by the daughter of the pygmy and the Princess. Simply put? Sensugali and the Spanish princess share a private history and eventually share a bed. Their love is doomed. She gets pregnant; she gives birth; they get caught. The King sends the obviously African baby to a nunnery. Then he lops off Sensugali's head.

That's the story.

Aristotle might say, Hey, I know what's going to happen. There's no suspense anymore.

Nottage might say, Hey, this is what happened. I have to tell the story.

The story is damned sad. There's no suspense. You know where it's going. You know how it's going to end.

Fair enough. But the story's true. As horrible as it is as inevitable as it is the story is true. It had to be told. And Nottage told it.

As to the performance itself ...

Michael Donald Edwards' direction has no false notes. And that's no false compliment. From a director's standpoint, this play is a minefield. It'd be dead easy to turn it into an editorial cartoon about how rotten white people were to black people. Edwards plays the scenes naturalistically and never elbows you in the ribs. (Which, of course, drives the point home that white folks have some heavy karma on their heads.) And the staging
is amazingly inventive. Set designer Lee Savage's sliding walls and Dan Scully's trippy lighting effects combine to create a hallucinatory space that draws you into the reality and irreality of the play's situation. (Which would have been the experience of Sensugali and the Queen.)

Jud Williford’s placid Sun King is no ranting, raving, narcissistic tyrant. He has nothing to prove. He blandly assumes his superiority; there’s not a drop of insecurity in him. Lindsay Marie Tierce is excellent as the Queen-in-a-Gilded-Cage, a seething mass of sexual and personal frustration. Will Little puts in a strong performance as an African captive in a bizarre alien environment in which, essentially, he’s humoring the pale-skinned lunatics and trying to preserve his own sanity and self-respect. Devereau Chumrau is passionate in the role of the doomed daughter of their illicit union. Dropped in a nunnery, she's supposed to disappear. She’s not supposed to exist; erasing her from history was the goal.

Thanks to Nottage's play, the erasure didn’t work. The elite bastards lost.

George Orwell would be proud.

Las Meninas
Through May 15
An Asolo Repertory production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

1 comment:

Nancy said...

It's been a long time since I read a review twice. OK, I've never read a review twice until now. Loved how the critic asked for indulgence and then delivered. If the play is written and acted half as "entertainingly" (I'm pretty sure that's not a word) as the review, I'm in! Now I have to go back and read a third time to pay attention to the details of run and theatre.