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Royal Spoils 

San Jose Rep mines an imperial scandal for dish

Wednesday, Apr 10 2002
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There's an obscure portrait in France called The Black Nun of Moret, from (very roughly) 1700, showing a bland African face in the penguinish folds of a nun's habit. Her name was Louise-Marie Thérèse, and she was an illegitimate daughter of the Sun King's wife, Marie-Thérèse. There's also a firsthand description of the nun's scandalous birth. "The Royal infant that had just been born resembled a little Negro dwarf ... that the Queen always had with her," wrote a catty mistress of the King's. The dwarf mysteriously disappeared from Louis' court some time before the birth, and a royal valet managed to whisk the embarrassing infant away to one of those "undisclosed locations" politicians have always been fond of. Thirty-one years later a black woman took vows at Moret and surprised the Holy Sisters by receiving members of the court as visitors.

This weird sequence of facts -- all a matter of public record, as far as I can tell -- undergirds a new historical farce by Lynn Nottage called Las Meninas. Nottage imagines the comedy of manners that would have attended a secret affair between Queen Marie-Thérèse and an African dwarf at Versailles. She changes a few historical details, like the age of the dwarf, Nabo. (In the play he's a man, but in life he arrived at court as a 10- or 12-year-old boy.) She also focuses on the queen's role as an outsider at Versailles. Marie-Thérèse was a Spaniard, "sold" to Louis to settle a land dispute between France and Spain, just as Nabo had been purchased as a gift from Africa (and delivered, literally, in a box). In Nottage's version of things Marie-Thérèse and her lover both feel like outcasts; the playwright imagines their marginal status as a reason for their affair.

So the play is a mix of politics and really good royal dish. ("FRENCH QUEEN HAS BLACK DWARF'S BABY" would be a tabloid cover for the ages; not even Fergie ever managed a scandal of such eloquent proportions.) The politics may not be as bold and fresh as Nottage likes to think. She writes in a program note that she's "enjoyed challenging convention," but Las Meninas is at heart a conventional play. Her idea that Europeans marginalized Africans is uncontroversial, for example, and where's the young playwright who could write Louis XIV as something besides a spoiled, conceited, imperious fop? But the material is rich, and Act 1 delivers on all its colorful promise.

Nabo Sensuagali arrives while King Louis and Queen Marie-Thérèse sit for a portrait. The queen assumes Nabo is a jester, and asks him for a song or dance. "What can one perform after being in a box for three days?" Nabo answers bitterly. "Each place I go they expect me to perform. What? I do not know. And they pack me in a box and send me on. I've traveled halfway across the world in this box. And I'm tired, tired, tired ...."

The queen, who's excitable and girlish, applauds.

"He's tired, Louis! Delightful!"

Mercedes Herrero plays Marie-Thérèse with a naive, skittering energy, and Daniel Bryant is strong and dignified as Nabo. At first their relationship resembles the bond between a bossy girl and her exotic pet, but it matures into a friendship, and finally an affair. "With a kiss," says Louise, the black nun of Moret (who narrates the story of her own origins), "he now possessed the kingly prize. With a kiss, he tasted empires past and future."

The second act is not as tight. It's predictable, and Nottage simply applies a creaky Broadway convention -- romantic love equals freedom -- to her strange material. A few scenes showing Louise in the convent don't work well at all, and an obscene African myth about the wife of the moon, told by Nabo to the court, is too long. But Ken Ruta does magisterial work as both an irreverent court painter and a doctor full of birthing misinformation, and Rachel Zawadi Luttrell narrates gracefully as Louise.

The title Las Meninas derives from a Diego Velásquez painting that shows a Spanish princess, her ladies-in-waiting (or "meninas"), and a dwarf. At first glance the play has nothing to do with the painting, but when you remember that Louis XIV had regular affairs (and children, which he recognized) with ladies-in-waiting at Versailles, you realize that Nottage wants to complete our picture of, well, royal affairs. Even a male African dwarf, she seems to be saying, can be a menina -- and his children should not be forgotten.

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