BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
You'd think that theaters would be clamoring to do plays by Lynn Nottage. Ruined, her riveting story about women amid civil war in the Congo, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Intimate Apparel, her play about an early 1900s seamstress, is also celebrated and widely produced. The African-American playwright was given a McArthur Fellowship "genius'' grant in 2007.
But one of Nottage's plays has been a tough sell. "Las Meninas is probably a little challenging for some of the audience,'' she said from her home in Brooklyn. "The play is so unusual stylistically, thematically. Many directors over the years have shied away from it.''
But one director has championed Las Meninas. Previously, the only professional production was in 2002 by California's San Jose Repertory Theatre, directed by Michael Donald Edwards. Now Edwards, in his fifth season as producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, is staging it again.
"I'm hoping this will put it on the radar screen,'' Edwards said.
Las Meninas is an exotic tale about the secret romance between an African dwarf and Queen Marie Therese, wife of the "Sun King'' Louis XIV in 17th century France. A principal character in the play is their illegitimate daughter, Louise Marie, who was sent to a convent.
"I came across a piece of obscure history that really intrigued me,'' Nottage said. "The more I discovered about Louise Marie, the more fascinated I became with not just her but that era in history, the court of Louis XIV, and the rituals and mores of court society.''
The title comes from a 1656 Diego Velázquez painting, Las Meninas, which means "ladies in waiting'' and depicts the Spanish court.
"I was exploring the way in which women have been marginalized by history to the point that we are practically erased from it,'' she said. "I had to dig very deep into diaries and primary resources in order to find any information about the women of that period. Particularly as an African-American woman, one would think there were no people of color living in France at that period.''
Edwards sums up Las Meninas more bluntly. "History is young and sexy in this play,'' he said.
The Asolo production has a cast of 15. It includes Will Little as Nabo, the dwarf; Lindsay Marie Tierce as Queen Marie Therese; and Devereau Chumrau as Louise Marie. All three are third-year students from the Asolo Conservatory.
"I have the acting resources to be able to realize a play like this,'' Edwards said. "A lot of theaters would look at it and say it's just too big. You've got to have the exact mix of African-American and Anglo actors. The pygmy, the lighter skinned black girl who is the daughter, and a young woman full of personality and wildness who ends up marrying Louis. They've got to be young, all three of them. The planets aligned for us.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.