A little person, a nun and a princess are among the stars of Diego Velázquez's 1656 painting Las Meninas, which also features a likeness of the artist himself. It's a work of art that has been a subject of scholarly obsession for so long that in 2014, art historian Jonathan Brown cracked a joke about "Las Meninas Fatigue Syndrome."
Anyone suffering from that particular disorder should try Profile Theatre's audio play Las Meninas. Written by Lynn Nottage and originally published in 2001, the script borrows its title and some pieces of its plot from Velázquez's painting, but it is anything but fatiguing. It is an angry, romantic, playful and political dramedy that takes aim at racism and misogyny with a smile that suggests laughter is the best revenge on the ruling class.
Las Meninas stars Crystal Ann Muñoz as Marie-Therese, queen of France and wife of King Louis XIV (Chris Murray). Marie-Therese, a Spaniard, is something of a pariah among 17th century French elites ("It's no secret—the queen is the ugliest woman in all of this court," a character claims), and even Louis barely tolerates her. He speaks her name with a venomousness most human beings reserve for skunks and rattlesnakes.
In the midst of her misery, Marie-Therese discovers an unlikely ally in Nabo Sensugali (Rance Nix), a little person from the African kingdom of Dahomey who has been enslaved and forced to serve as her fool. Marie-Therese initially treats Nabo with cruel condescension, but their relationship evolves into a romance built on their shared status as outsiders. By the time Marie-Therese says, "Sometimes I fear that we are in love," you know they already are.
While there's a hazy precedent for this story—it has been speculated that the real Marie-Therese gave birth to a biracial daughter who was raised in a convent—Las Meninas is no dry slab of historical fiction. Even after Marie-Therese and Nabo fall in love, they trade crude and cringe-worthy insults ("Fatty!" "Little man!" "Ugly cow!"). In fact, the entire play pulses with an anarchic energy that repeatedly and thrillingly upends expectations.
Director Dawn Monique Williams and her cast and crew stay on Nottage's prankish wavelength by treating Las Meninas not as a period piece, but as a multifaceted spoof of a period piece. The dainty opening notes of Matt Wiens' score play as a knowingly clichéd tribute to Baroque-era music, and the gleefully anachronistic performances seem engineered to rib audiences expecting realism—when Louis declares, "Tomorrow I have a full day of pageantry and whatnot," he sounds like the most American sovereign ever to strut through Versailles.
Las Meninas is mischievous enough that by the end of Act 1, listeners may wonder if the play is headed for a hopeful ending—the Nottage equivalent of Hitler being assassinated in Quentin Tarantino's revisionist World War II film Inglourious Basterds. Nottage ultimately chooses a more painful and believable route, and the play is not necessarily better for it. There's something irresistible about the idea of Marie-Therese and Nabo defying history by fleeing France together and leaving the vile Louis and his mistress, La Valliere (Claire Rigsby), to fume in their wake.
Yet in a year of good, bad and maddeningly mediocre audio plays, Las Meninas stands out. While many theater artists have responded to the pandemic with relentlessly sober and serious tales, Profile has created a production that dares to entertain and enlighten in equal measure.
It's a miracle that one play can include both an uproarious gag about a wig and a wrenching scene where Marie-Therese tells Nabo, "You were shipped in a box and I [in] a carriage." That line isn't meant to suggest that their struggles are equal—Nabo has endured suffering that his queen can't comprehend. It's there to remind us of the beauty of two outcasts finding solace with one another, even if their bliss will be trampled beneath the arc of history.
LISTEN: Las Meninas streams exclusively for members of Profile Theatre at profiletheatre.org/las-meninas through Tuesday, Jan. 5.