Deception is the shining glory in the court of King Louis XIV. Or so the story unfurls in Rep Stage’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Las Meninas. A thought provoking, emotional rollercoaster of a show lets the audience reconsider the historical seduction and scandal of Queen Marie -Therese, the Spanish woman married into the French King’s court to prevent a major war from breaking loose in the 17th Century. This play takes a trek back through time and plants the audience as a fly on the wall with the narrative voice of a young novice; detailing the queen’s fall from grace and all the sordid consequences.
Never a more regal court will you find painted than the one displayed in this production. Elena Zlotescu doubles as the Set and Costume Designer, enchanting royalty with her whims of creativity in the costumes and simple flooring cover the space. A vast mural, painted in a manner similar to that of the era, covers the floor depicting cherubs and other heavenly patrons. A giant mirror creates a paneled wall which reflects this painting; and leaning toward the audience this mirror doubles up as a silhouette screen for some of the more obscure scenes involving interpretive dance.
The costumes are indescribable – towers of bridal white decked out upon the women, particularly the queen; each adorned with stairs of stacked lace on the sides creating the illusion of widened hips. The courtiers and servants could be compared to frilly white oversized birds as they strut around the stage in these ensembles. With ghostly painted faces to fit the time period the characters are almost like blinding shades drifting about in this surreal setting; wafting to and fro in their obscenely colorless costumes.
Director Eve Muson lays the show out on an enormous stage yet often uses very little of it, creating huge gaps of negative space. Even during the group scenes, when the characters are dancing they appear crowded together with poor spacing and blocking choices made by Muson. This mixed with the confusion choreographic moments of interpretive dance provided by Reneè Brozic Barger seem to make parts of the play feel superfluous. Barger uses the silhouette mirror to hide dancers in shadow when Nabo is telling his first story to the queen. As his narration continues courtiers – still in their full white court costumes – appear and begin to dance to a fierce tribal rhythm. There is a disconnect not only between the way they appear, still in their full court regalia, but also that the story he narrates calls for a specific number of gender-assigned characters and this is not matched in the dance, despite having had enough of each gendered character not currently on stage to make this possible. This interpretive dancing detracts from the overall story and pieces of Nabo’s narration get lost as the audience tries to decipher what’s going on behind the glass.
Despite these things there are some characters that carry the show to glory. Nabo (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) plays a challenging role as the African dwarf gifted to the queen. Working closely with dialect coach Lynn Watson, Jones masters the subtle accents of a man from faraway lands. Watson’s work comes as a double-edged sword, however, for as wonderful as Jones sounds when presenting his character is as dreadful as Katie Hileman sounds when attempting her broken Spanish English accent. Hileman forces certain words into the accent making her character sound contrived. And at other times throughout the show her accent completely disappears and she falls into the British English of those speaking around her; a mismatch of vocal uncertainty that makes her character fall short.
KeiLyn Durrel Jones gives the audience a stunning performance – taking on a durational challenge as he spends the entire show squatting on his knees. Jones moves about the stage never rising above this squatted position, managing to create the convincing illusion that he is only half the size of an average man. His facial expressions are second to none as he gazes uneasy around the court and in the presence of the queen. Each thought and emotion is etched into his ever shifting facial muscles, his words reinforcing these notions when he speaks. And when Jones takes to narrating stories his voice is deep and serene, drawing the audience into his tales as if he were telling them personally to us. The same impressive performance is not found in Nabo’s foil, Queen Marie-Therese (Katie Hileman). Her emotions are forced and fake at the best of times, and when she breaks down into a fit of hysterics during the pregnancy scene it feels like you are watching a bad soap opera. Her interactions with Jones, despite his efforts, feel unnatural and rehearsed, as she allows no time to fully hear what he is saying and respond to it. Her movements on the stage are clunky and it is understandable that her dress is enormous – however, one would expect more fluid and graceful movements from the queen. This, at times, makes the show unpleasant, which is extremely unfortunate as she is the main focus of the production. There are, however, three characters that I would have been desperate to see more of because of their stunning simplistic portrayals that were fitted so naturally into the show. The Painter (Tony Tsendeas) is seen only briefly, but during his interaction with Jones he feels real, grounded in his words and observations of life at court, and he imparts valuable wisdom through his slight gestures. The same is said of the king’s mistress, La Valliere (Annie Grier) who hardly does any speaking but is thoroughly enjoyable. Her first recognized interactions with the king are giddy and flirtatious conveying more with her sneaky smile and wanton eyes than words ever could. Grier has a haughty laugh thoroughly fits the bill for the character, slinking around attached to King Louis (Drew Kopas) like the mistress of the night that she is.
And lastly we see the Queen Mother (Susan Rome) who doubles up as Mother Superior and her roles are as different as day and night. When Rome stands as Queen Mother her comic timing is impeccable, delivering the perfect little zing to her lines and smiling with the slightest hint of a smirk to her lips. As Mother Superior she is a woman possessed by faith – a screaming vision of a God-fearing woman with brimstone and fire flying from her lips. I do wish that the three of these characters had been more present in the production , because it would have been far more enjoyable. Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Las Meninas plays through May 6, 2012 at Rep Stage, on the Howard County Community College Campus, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500 or purchase them online
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