Royal intrigue at the 17th-century French court is still good for gossip in Lynn Nottage's 2002 play "Las Meninas." It made a striking impression when it was staged at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2010 and there's now a strikingly similar production at Howard Community College's Rep Stage.
Indeed, the connections between these two productions go way beyond similarity. Director Eve Muson, set and costume designer Elena Zlotescu, and several other members of the UMBC design team also worked on the current Rep Stage production; and five of the actors from the UMBC show are in the Rep Stage cast.
Although it's unusual to have nearly identical local productions spaced so closely together on the theater calendar, it's a distinctive play that deserves to be seen — or seen again, for some of us.
The young nun who also serves as a narrator, Louise Marie-Therese (Fatima Quander), immediately sets the regal scene in "Las Meninas." What's most notable about this staging, however, is the extent to which the design team's clever visual conception just as quickly tells you what you need to know about life in the court of King Louis XIV (Drew Kopas).
The mostly bare stage only contains a few pieces of furniture. Depending on how the lights are deployed, a scrim at the back of the stage sometimes functions as a mirror reflecting what's taking place on stage and sometimes functions as a see-through screen revealing to us what's going on backstage.
Basically, it's hard to keep a secret in a palace where courtiers and servants are in close proximity to the royal bedroom. The king is a dandy who would much rather fool around with the seductive young La Valliere (Annie Grier) than be faithful to his wife, Queen Marie-Therese (Katie Hileman). The marriage to the Spanish-born Marie-Therese amounted to a political alliance between France and Spain, so romance scarcely enters into it. Moreover, the queen's brusque manners and heavy accent offend the etiquette-obsessed king.
The frilly and occasionally over-the-top costumes underscore the extent to which proper appearance means everything at this court. Never mind that all sorts of base motives and misbehavior can be found at court. What counts for the king is that things appear civilized on the surface.
That superficial stability is threatened when the queen receives what can accurately be described as a human gift delivered in a wood box. An African dwarf, Nabo Sensugali (KeiLyn Durrel Jones), has arrived to amuse the bored queen. This was a common practice at European courts in that era; the play's title is a reference to a famous Spanish painting in which a royal family's entourage includes a dwarf.
The emotional heart of the play is the unusual friendship that develops between Queen Marie-Therese and Nabo Sensugali, and the actors playing these roles have expert timing as they explore the dynamics of this relationship. Although the playwright's tendency to reiterate thematic points about gender and race verges on vexing redundancy, she has the good sense to make these points through characters we care about.
The secondary characters aren't especially deep as characters go, but they neatly cohere in a plot that's all about romantic plotting. Acting as much with their costumes and gestures as with their words, the cast members emphasize the extent to which life at court is a rigorously choreographed performance.
Notable among the supporting cast are two actors playing multiple roles. Tony Tsendeas plays both a painter and a doctor; and Susan Rome plays both the Queen Mother and a Mother Superior. As their characters add to the royal treasury of gossip, King Louis XIV has reason to worry that what happens in Versailles may not stay in Versailles.
Rep Stage's "Las Meninas" runs through May 6 in the Studio Theatre at Howard Community College's Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., in Columbia. Tickets are $22- $33; $12 for students with ID. Call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.repstage.org.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun