Lynn Nottage named her play about the French court of King Louis XIV after Velazquez's picture of Maids of Honor from the Spanish court, hoping to suggest some of that famous painting's ambiguous multiple focus in her drama. Based on good historical detective work, excellent sympathetic imagination, and some believable hunches, Las Meninas tells the obscure and scandalous tale of how Louis' Hapsburg queen, Marie-Thérèse of Austria, gave birth to a dark-skinned daughter, Louise, who ended up in a nunnery. It is known that Marie-Thérèse owned a diminutive African manservant, and Nottage makes the logical assumption—not obvious to medical science of the time—that Louise was the offspring of this unlikely pair of lonely foreigners. Director Sean Murray has made the show intimately opulent, with his own compact single scenic design of mirrors, solid black surfaces, and gilt period filigree, lighted by Eric Lotze in a rich golden chiaroscuro that sets off Jose Maria Martinez Ybarra's sumptuous aristocratic costumes like jewelry on velvet.
The narrative follows alternating time tracks, as the novice Louise (a winsome Monique Gaffney) frames the tale of her tangled parentage for her fellow nuns. Robin Christ is exquisite, graceful, and whimsically melancholy as the supposedly ill-favored and clumsy Marie-Thérèse. Christopher Wylie gives an appealingly understated wry exasperation to the queen's little African love-slave Nabo Sensugali, whose candid comments on French manners earn him no favor with Daren Scott's decadently royal Louis. Jim Chovick seethes with suppressed contempt and boredom as a Velazquez-like court painter. And Judy Durning (as both Queen Mother and Mother Superior), Rachel Carey, David Serpa, and Amanda de Treville Sitton elegantly portray multiple nobles, courtiers, and underlings.
The production makes the most of Nottage's script, which, although it treats an original topic with some admirable dramatic workmanship, contains little that is surprising after its basic story and method are apprehended, and abounds with longish speeches that often verge on bookish fustian. Some of the best moments in this show are wordless ones such as a wonderfully unconstrained African dance by Gaffney's Louise.
"Las Meninas," presented by and at the Cygnet Theatre Company, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego. Thur.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Aug. 7-Sept. 12. $22-26. (619) 337-1525.