Louis XIV became king of France in 1643. All of 4 years old, the li'l squirtbag would grow up to declare that he ruled by divine right, an observation that sent his mom flailing with laughter into the next room.
Soon, though, she and God would chortle out the other end while Louis ruthlessly consolidated his power in the name of the Roman Catholic Church. His officers literally couldn't so much as OK a passport without his say-so.
Las Meninas, the opening production of the Cygnet Theatre's second season, tries to portray this as it recounts a little-known piece of history. Like Louis' subjects, the play takes its nature and color from his delusions. Lynn Nottage's dialogue and Sean Murray's direction spring from royal self-absorption while Louis' wife, the Spanish-born Queen Marie-Thérèse (Robin Christ), nurtures a friendship with Nabo Sensugali (Christopher Wylie), an African jester sent from Dahomey to amuse her.
Both are starved for physical companionship; of course, one thing leads to another. In 1695, on the eve of her vow of silence, novitiate nun Marie Louise-Thérèse (Monique Gaffney) relates the history behind their liaison and the murky twists that drive the action.
This is a well-acted production amid Murray's stark set and Jose Maria Martinez Ybarra's period costume concepts. Gaffney's oratory complements that splendor as she moves in and out of the action. But as Marie opens that big ol' window onto Louis' sex life and suppression of disagreeable matters, this king (Daren Scott) never really embraces the grandeur that defines him.
Remember: Here's a guy who thought he was accountable only to God, and he stood on all kinds of ceremony to convey that to his court. In this show, Louis is all too human as he belches, preens and almost oafishly consorts with La Vallerie (Amanda de Treville Sitton). He glowers down his beak-like schnoz at Nabo; the real Louis likely wouldn't even glance the little man's way. And history says that even though he cheated on her, Louis treated his queen like a queen. Here, the two squabble like kids, behavior unbecoming God's ambassador.
Las Meninas, or "the handmaidens," takes its title from a Diego Velázquez painting. It's a pretty cool piece, but its two-dimensional medium renders it irrelevant. Much of this show rises and falls with a three-dimensional Louis. His bearing is out of kilter; the rest of the production suffers significantly for it.
And the French wonder why nobody likes 'em.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Aug. 7. Las Meninas runs through Sept. 12 at the Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. $24-$26. 619-337-1525.
Shakespeare's new face
I'd never seen a West Coast production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, let alone by Poor Players, before last weekend. Now, I'm reminded why Bill remains the world's preeminent contemporary playwright. This Bard-based group is as hip and eager and aboveboard as it can possibly be with this story of mistaken identity and love lost and found. Director Nick Kennedy totally draws a bead on the tricky role of steward/madman Malvolio (Richard Baird)-now I can die in peace after having seen an actor get it right.
Poor Players can't deal with the nuances in every single work-they're young, and that won't do for Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar (those need lots of older actors to illustrate the continuity of bloodlines, etc.). But Twelfth Night was too super-if I had to see it out here for the first time, I'm delighted it was under the thumb of a happenin' group that has so much fun. The show runs through Aug. 22 at the Adams Avenue Studio of the Arts. Go see the damn thing.