Marie Antoinette at Yale Rep -- a Heady Production
By Amy J. Barry
What makes David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette an exciting new play isn’t so much that the famously beheaded Queen of France is painted as an unsympathetic or sympathetic character, but a flawed and interesting human being, exquisitely performed by Marin Ireland. The Yale Rep premiere, a co-production with American Repertory Theater, is at once farcical, dead-on serious, explosive, quite literally, and a feast for the eyes.
Rebecca Taichman keenly directs this well-paced performance that is worldly and unworldly; grounded in history and embellished with such fantastical elements as a talking sheep, bewitchingly played by David Greenspan.
The production is also a pertinent statement on class inequality, the shallow fickleness of pop culture, and what happens when the government -- in this case monarchy -- is devoid of compassion and has lost sight of the people it serves.
The action begins in 1776, seven years into the arranged marriage of Marie and Louis XVI, and ends with their deaths in 1793. They have yet to produce an heir and the pressure is on, although Louis is more interested in his antique clocks than such things as who will succeed him in running the country. Steven Rattazzi perfectly portrays the befuddled little King with arrested development. He’s as clueless in many ways as his Austrian-born wife, who was barely 15 when they married.
They argue like any un-royal couple: “Has it ever occurred to you to run France?” Marie asks Louie.
The play opens on a brilliant yellow toile patterned stage -- the delightful sets are by Riccardo Hernandez; dazzling lighting by Christopher Akerlind. Marie is sitting between two other regal types in voluminous pastel gowns, hair piled sky high ala Marge Simpson, rapidly gossiping, and complaining Valley Girl-style while drinking tea and overindulging on sweets.
Marie reveals her ignorance of politics and how she feels like she lives in a fishbowl -- not even allowed to dress or undress alone. This is indicated by outfit and wig changes provided by her servants at the beginning of each scene; creative confections by costume designer Gabriel Berry.
Hair and clothes are central metaphors throughout the production.
“I’m tired. Three feet of hair is a workout. Maybe I’ll chop it all off,” Marie says, foreshadowing what’s to come.
While France’s debt increases, Marie known for her extravagant outfits and palace decorating schemes goes deeper into disfavor with the masses, who begin circulating pamphlets -- the tabloids of the time -- spreading rumors of her infidelities with handsome Axel von Fersen (Jake Silbermann) hinting that Louis Joseph, the heir she finally produces, may be his.
She continues to believe in absolute monarchy, stating that democracy is a doomed experiment. She doesn’t fathom the magnitude of what’s going on all around her, pointing out, “We run the state and are enemies of the state.”
While the first act is light and funny and colorful, filled with opulent attire and huge hair, the second act is much more serious and dark -- the revolution is in full swing and Marie is methodically stripped of her royal coverings, her wigs removed, her hair slowly shorn down to the scalp by prison guards.
She continues to believe she will get out unscathed. She doesn’t get the gravity of the situation.
But despite Marie’s ignorance and arrogance, Adjmi’s fine script also reveals an insecure and not thoroughly clueless young woman, thrust into a huge role and time in history, who actually does have some self awareness about her own shortcomings, and desires to be a better person, a better mother.
It clearly wouldn’t be a spoiler to give away the ending; but to the credit of the playwright and director, the finale is quite powerful without obvious gratuitous violence.
The guillotine may have cut short the lives of Marie and Louis, but their fascinating story lives on in a fresh and relevant way in this stellar new production at Yale Rep.