A Night at Versailles: Las Meninas

By Samantha Plotner
Barnard’s Minor Latham Playhouse has facilities that could likely rival some off-Broadway playhouses. So it is not surprising that the New York premiere of Lynn Nottage’s Las Meninas is here this weekend. The cast is all students, while the crew is a mix of students and professionals. Latham is an incredibly intimate playing space and this production makes use of it. Director Daniela Varon staged the show in such a way that the audience feels like it is a part of the story, which is an asset in a production where the narrator is addressing the audience. Damaris Giha (CC ’14) plays the narrator, Louise Marie-Thérèse, a young woman who is about to take her vows as a nun.  She is onstage the entire production, always perfectly engaged (and in a show that runs about two and half hours, that’s a feat in and of itself). She also brings a touching immediacy to a character trying to explain her origins, origins that she isn’t supposed to know about.

Explaining those origins is the plot of Las Meninas. The play gets its title from Diego Velazquez’s painting of the same name, which is a portrait of the Spanish royal family. The play itself is based on a theory that Queen Marie-Thérèse of France (who was also the Princess of Spain) had a child with an African dwarf who served as a fool in the French court, a child who was then sent off at birth to a convent. The premise sounds iffy, like you could be walking into a show that will either be supremely boring or a soap-opera melodrama. However I assure you Las Meninas is neither of those. This is in part due to Lynn Nottage’s well-crafted script as well as to an incredibly strong cast. Emma de Beus (BC ’13), as Queen Marie-Thérèse, impresses with her sheer emotional range that goes from child-like innocence to screaming hysteria. As the aforementioned African dwarf Nabo, Gabrielle Beans (CC’14) not only convincingly plays a man she tugs at the audience’s heartstrings in a performance that seems effortless. Jacob Lasser (CC’12) plays King Louis XIV and in the play’s final moments pulls off the difficult task of making the audience feel for a character you spend most of the play disliking. Those performances are demonstrative of what makes this a moving production, which is its ability to pack an intense emotional punch. Even though it is a story of French royal intrigue from the 1600s it poses questions about the nature of love and the truth of history that are still very current. It is definitely a production worth carving out a few hours to see.
Samantha is a sophomore at Barnard and Co-Editor in Chief of The Nine Ways of Knowing.
Las Meninas is showing at the Minor Latham Playhouse in Milbank Hall today, April 23, at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets cost $5 with a CUID. 
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