KPBS AIRDATE: August 13, 2004
The power of a painting. It can inspire a play … or ruin a friendship. An ultra-modern, white-on-white oil-on-canvas becomes the inflammatory fulcrum of Yasmina Reza’s “Art.” In “Las Meninas,” written by award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, a 17th century portrait by the Spanish master, Velasquez, provided a title and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the royal court.
Nottage spent eight years researching her chilling but often-comic play, a fact-based but forgotten story of political intrigue and insensitivity, outcasts, infidelity and the strength of the human spirit.
“Las Meninas,” which means ladies-in-waiting, focuses on Marie-Thérèse, unhappy Spanish wife of French Sun-King Louis XIV, trapped in a marriage of political expediency. One day, she receives a present from her uncle. When she opens the large box, out springs a small man — an African dwarf, kidnapped and sent to amuse the despondent, isolated queen. The two lonely outsiders develop a relationship, and the unfortunate result of their union, Louise Marie-Thérèse, was falsely declared dead at birth, and banished to a Benedictine convent. We meet Louise on the eve of her final vows of silence. She addresses us, as her fellow sisters, as she pieces together her past.
In launching the second season of his fledgling Cygnet Theatre, Sean Murray soars triumphantly again. His direction and design of “Las Meninas” are elegant, and his cast is aptly majestic, sumptuously costumed by first-time designer Jose Maria Martinez Ybarra. Robin Christ is at once regal, childlike and heartbreaking as the despairing, powerless Queen to a faithless King, imperiously portrayed by Daren Scott. Christopher Wylie, too-long absent from local stages, is marvelous as the gentle and noble Nabo. And with her poetic memories and nimble moves, Monique Gaffney makes us feel the pain of obliteration by family and history. This is a stirring evening of theater, and a story that will stay with you long after the lights go out onstage.
“Art” is a more intellectual pursuit. The play is oh, so very French — three guys sitting around an upscale apartment, ruminating, cogitating and tearing each other apart… over a painting. But when Serge, a divorced dermatologist, purchases the large, all-white canvas for an obscene price, Marc, a controlling, condescending aeronautical engineer, sees red. Caught between them is poor Yvan, a conciliatory stationery salesman who’s bullied by the women in his life and can barely survive the battering of his buddies. It’s a wonderful pas de trois at Lamb’s Players Theatre. Paul Eggington nails the snobbish aloofness, Bob Smyth the cynical horse-laugh and Tom Stephenson a fever-pitch of hysteria, under Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s solid direction. The brutally humorous play makes you think about friendship and honesty, art and taste, trust and tolerance. And in this age of politicized anti-intellectualism, that is a very good thing indeed.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.