Anything Lynn Nottage writes is worth paying attention to. Nottage won last year's Pulitzer Prize for drama for Ruined, her riveting drama about women in the war-torn Congo, and she brings an adventurous spirit to contemporary theater.
Sarasota's Asolo Repertory Theatre is to be commended for its lavish revival of an early Nottage play, Las Meninas, about an illicit affair between the 17th century French Queen Marie-Therese and the African dwarf presented to her as a gift. The staging is by Asolo producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards, who was also responsible for the play's premiere, and only other production, by San Jose Repertory Theatre in California in 2002.
Las Meninas, which means "ladies in waiting" and was inspired in part by a Diego Velazquez painting, joins a distinguished lineup of literary works on dwarfs as gifts to royalty, including an Oscar Wilde story and an opera by Alexander Zemlinsky. Unfortunately, Nottage's play is more interesting in theory than in performance, feeling a bit like an academic project. In fact, the playwright was in grad school when she had the idea for it.
Edward's staging, featuring rich period costumes by B. Modern and Dan Scully's projections, is first rate. But three young actors, all students from the Asolo Conservatory, have principal roles: Lindsay Marie Tierce as the queen; Will Little as Nabo, the dwarf; and Devereau Chumrau as their grownup daughter, who narrates much of the play from a convent. They are perfectly fine, but lack seasoning. As a result, the tone of the play is confusing. Is Las Meninas a comedy? A tragedy? Nottage has a strong voice, but her characters are curiously unformed.
The value of experience onstage is demonstrated by Barbara Redmond, who gives a wonderfully nuanced, hilarious performance in multiple roles as the queen mother and the convent's mother superior. Jud Williford plays the cuckolded King Louis XIV as a ridiculous fop.
Las Meninas has performances at 2 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $17-$65. (941) 351-8000 or toll-free 1-800-361-8388; asolorep.org. The production then travels across the state to play at the new South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center May 20-22.
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Three excellent bay area actors — Gavin Hawk, Meg Heimstead and Roxanne Fay — are forming a company called a Simple Theatre that is "founded on the belief that great theater is rooted in the simplicity of compelling stories told by talented storytellers." Their first production is planned to be Ariel Dorfman's three-character play on torture and sexual abuse, Death and the Maiden, in September. A benefit for the new company is being held at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Studio@620, St. Petersburg. Suggested minimum donation is $15. (727) 895-6620; studio620.org.
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There is an epilogue elsewhere in the newspaper today for Aubrey Hampton, the co-founder of Gorilla Theater, who died Monday. I spent many happy hours in the theater that Mr. Hampton and his late wife, Susan Hussey, so generously supported. Just off the top of my head, I recall a pair of superb productions of Wallace Shawn plays, The Designated Mourner and The Fever, that I saw there. Several of Gorilla's musical productions were invaluable, including The Last Five Years, Side Show and Falsettos.
Unlike other theater operators in the area, Mr. Hampton pretty much did what he wanted to do, without a lot of fretting about commercial matters. He had the money (from Aubrey Organics, his cosmetics company) and he loved theater. We will miss him.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.