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[whitespace] Mercedes Herrero and Daniel Bryant
Prisoners Of The Palace: Mercedes Herrero and Daniel Bryant play outsiders at the court of the Sun King in 'Las Meninas.'

History Channeling

Two performances explore the past from new perspectives

By Heather Zimmerman

THE SUN MAY as well have risen and set at the whim of the Sun King, France's Louis XIV, but with her play Las Meninas, Lynn Nottage sheds light into a hidden corner of the monarch's court that history was made to forget. The San José Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of Nottage's compelling intrigue about an affair between the queen of France and an African man--and the fate of their child.

Queen Marie-Thérèse, a Spanish princess married for diplomatic advantage to Louis XIV, at first seems the typical spoiled noble, but Mercedes Herrero's outstanding portrayal finds sympathy and vulnerability in the queen. These qualities bring the flighty Marie-Thérèse an instant and lasting affinity for her new "fool," an African dwarf named Nabo (Daniel Bryant). Bryant also turns in a superb performance as a so-called fool with so much dignity and a spirit so free that it transcends the confines of the court--which is not to say that Nabo doesn't rail against his enslavement. Though their freedoms are restricted in very different ways, Nottage makes it clear that Nabo and the queen essentially both live as prisoners of the palace.

Louise Marie-Thérèse (Rachel Zawadi Luttrell), the child who's born of their brief affair, narrates the story, revealing it in flashbacks. We see her as a young woman, about to take vows in the convent where she has been confined by the king for life. Though it acts as a framework for the story, her narration can seem intrusive because she is the least fleshed-out of the characters. Perhaps the contrast between her and her vividly realized parents is intentional, to demonstrate her cruelly limited existence. But she often seems so modern as to be a character from a completely different play. In a sense, she is--a denizen of a history unveiled 400 years belatedly. Indeed, Nottage has added significant new faces to the court of the Sun King, proving that even a king famed for his absolute power has little power over history when he's no longer around to rewrite it.

Another well-known historical figure is the subject of a more abstract retelling in Van Gogh: In Search of the Sun, a dance performance presented last week by the Margaret Wingrove Dance Company. Based on correspondence between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, the piece looks at the most creative and tumultuous years of the artist's life.

Marrying art to movement seems a natural choice, especially with such a passionate but troubled talent as Van Gogh. And the performance does an excellent job of conveying the visual beauty of Van Gogh's work and the turmoil of his mind. As Vincent, Michael Howerton imbues every leap, spin and step with the quickly shifting joy and despair of the troubled genius.

The work takes a while to hit its stride in the first act, as Van Gogh begins to paint. Though the artist is discovering his craft, strangely, he barely moves. There's a also general lack of cohesiveness in the narrative when it comes to the inclusion of secondary characters, particularly in the case of Van Gogh's mistress and model, Sien (Lori Seymour). However, an impassioned argument between Gauguin (John Lanch) and Van Gogh speaks volumes, marking the beginning of the artist's violent and final decline. And throughout the work, Vincent's dances with Theo (Matt Kovac) demonstrate a tender interdependence between the brothers that's delightfully unexpected.

Las Meninas plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm through April 14 at the San José Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $20-$44. (408.367.7262)

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From the March 28-April 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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