Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 2004

Once upon a time, there was an unhappy Queen. She was born a Spanish princess, but was married off to the King of France. Lonely and despondent, she receives a cheer-up gift from her uncle — a Fool, a kidnapped African dwarf named Nabo. The unlikely companions soon learn that they have a lot in common: both are displaced from their homelands, having trouble with the language, and subject to living conditions beyond their control. Gradually, they grow closer, and before long, the Queen gives birth to a black daughter. Horrified, the King has the child whisked away to a convent.

As fanciful as it seems, the tale is true. And the backstory of this life of Marie Louise, daughter of Queen Marie-Thérèse, is what forms the basis of Las Meninas, by the award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel, Crumbs from the Table of Joy). Set in 1695, the play is presented in flashbacks, taking us to the court of the Sun King as we, along with the nun who is about to take her vow of silence, gradually piece together the mystery of her history.

Nottage spent eight frustrating years researching the background.

“What fascinated me about this story,” she’s said, “is that these people were part of the historic record, but they were very carefully erased. There is a Yoruba saying: ‘The same white man who made the pencil made the eraser.’ Part of my mission as a writer is to resurrect some of these marginalized people from the African Diaspora… When [Las Meninas] premiered at San Jose Rep [in 2002], I think there was some fear because of the taboo of the subject matter. But the audience responded wonderfully.”

Sean Murray, Cygnet Theatre’s artistic director, had the same response. “I loved the play,” says the highly regarded actor-director. “It’s about finding love in the oddest places. It’s reclaiming history. It’s very rich, very funny, and heartbreaking, too.

“The play takes us back to another time,” Murray continues. “But it has a very contemporary feel. It grows in sophistication as the narrator’s understanding grows. Historically, there was only about 1 1/2 paragraphs about this whole incident. The playwright is doing what the character is doing — trying to fill in all the blanks.”

The playwright took her title from a 1656 painting by Velazquez which depicts Marie’s sister-princess as a child in the royal court of Spain with her meninas, or ladies-in-waiting, who have brought dwarves to amuse her. According to Murray, “Nottage is using the enigmatic painting to imply that the royals lived their lives in a public forum and their scandals and tragedies are fodder for gossip and amusements.”

As is his custom, Murray has gathered together some of San Diego’s top talents to bring the play to life. Among the actors are Monique Gaffney as the nun, Robin Christ as the Queen and Rhys Green as Nabo.

Las Meninas opens the second season for the fledgling Cygnet Theatre, which Murray and his partner, business director Bill Schmidt, built in good part with their own hands. The former artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre, Murray had developed an outstanding local reputation for creating high-quality productions.

He opened his theater last fall with the knockout glam-rock musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, followed by a virtuoso performance by David McBean in the solo show, Fully Committed, which was reprised in the spring. Then came a stunning production of the ‘silent movie musical,’ Bed and Sofa, which was directed and designed by Murray, who has a background in visual art as well as theater.

In the upcoming season, Murray directs the Southern California premiere of actor Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in da Moonlight (9/30-11/7), a funny, father-son deer-hunting story, as well as Lanford Wilson’s haunting romantic drama, Burn This (1/15-2/13/05) and Tennessee Williams’ great American classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (6/9-7/8/05).

Another So-Cal premiere, The Book of Liz (11/18-12/26), will be guest directed by Brendon Fox, associate director at the Old Globe. This off-the-wall comic fantasy-history was written by those lovable nut-case siblings, David and Amy Sedaris. In the spring, Murray will reunite original cast members from the smash-hit production of Pageant, the rowdy, all-male beauty-queen musical, that he initially produced at North Coast Rep.

Murray sees Cygnet as part of an emerging theater district in the Rolando area near SDSU, close to the recently-opened Salvation Army Joan Kroc Theatre and the new home of Theatresports improv. He’s confident that “people will drive to see good theater,” a notion supported by his successful first season in his beautifully reconfigured space.

“I want to do as many premieres as we can —   plays people haven’t seen, or haven’t seen in a long time. I love eclecticism, a broad variety of styles and really interesting roles.

“We’re paying artists more than most places in town, giving audiences a great space, with easy parking, an art gallery and excellent production values, and hoping for word of mouth, which is what sustains us. What we do takes people by surprise. If there’s any niche to be filled in San Diego, it’s quirky work. We’re taking calculated risks, and it’s paying off. We try to treat patrons like friends. We’re really just trying to make more friends.”

[Las Meninas runs from August 3-Sept. 12 at Cygnet Theatre; 619-337-1525; ]

©2004 Patté Productions Inc.