Antonio Buero-Vallejo, who died this past April at the age of 83, was perhaps Spain's greatest contemporary playwright, admired not only for his dramatic ability, but also for his bold convictions in the repressive atmosphere of the Franco regime. His 1960 Las Meninas, inspired by the famous painting of the same name, was given its English-language premiere under the title Velasquez, translated by Marion Peter Holt and directed by Michael Martorano.
Set in the passionate and turbulent Spain of the mid-17th century, Velasquez illuminates the predicament of the creative artist frustrated by censorship. Based on actual incidents in the life of the painter Velasquez, the play is a large-scale pageant of the struggle against jealousy and repression, both personal and political, culminating in the artist's trial before his King and the Inquisition.
Marion Peter Holt's translation is an efficient piece of writing; if it isn't a work of art, at least it is absorbing, well-crafted and admirable in its introduction of Buero-Vallejo to American audiences. Unfortunately, Michael Martorano's production, while often visually striking, was heavy with the air of melodramatic solemnity. Martorano, whose own elegant translation of the Beaumarchais comedy The Marriage of Figaro helped Westside Rep receive an OOBR Award in 1998, seemed awed by the magnitude of the work, and although he kept the evening fast-moving, an unrelenting atmosphere of reverential gloom pervaded it.
The huge cast also seemed overwhelmed. Everyone acted up a storm, and there were no embarrassingly bad performances. But the effect was of a watercolor miniature posing as a grand masterpiece in oils: the pastel outlines were there, but the rich colors and tones that give depth and ignite passion were missing.
Sal Parrotta's attractive set, while beautifully finished, didn't always serve the production in terms of clarity of location, but Jeremy Kumin's painterly lighting was exquisite, as were the lavish period costumes (by Nesha Seeley and Christine DiMitrio).
Buero-Vallejo's work is largely unknown in this country, and that is a pity. If nothing else, this production of Velasquez gave voice to a major contemporary artist whose eloquent insights into the creative process, the function of art, and the dilemma of the visionary in an authoritarian or reactionary society are universal and remain pungently relevant. Would that more of our Off-Off-Broadway companies take the risk with unfamiliar but nonetheless important international playwrights.
(Featuring Michael McCartney, Ledger Free,
Davio D. Blue, Maurice Kessler, Ed Schultz,
José Andrés Velasco [virtually unintelligible],
Gary Tifeld, Clark Williams, Marcus Giovanni,
Ethan C. Thomas, William Greville, Steven Marrocco,
Yasmin Flores, Sarah Krassenbaum, Melissa DeLancey,
Brenda Hattingh, Nicole Burgund, Nesha Seeley, Kealy
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita