Clueless Royals Get Their Due
By David A. Rosenberg
Heads are the thing. In Yale Rep’s stylish, world premiere production of the tragic-comic “Marie Antoinette,” noggins filled with empty words balance three-foot high wigs before being eventually lopped off by fiery revolutionaries.
David Adjmi’s hip, vernacular, often spicy version of the doomed French queen portrays her as Valley Girl Extraordinaire, cheerleading friends and berating servants. She hasn’t a clue about what’s ailing the hoi-polloi. (All references to current, condescending one-percenters are hereby disavowed.)
Marie, though born in Austria, was sent to France at age 15 in an arranged marriage to the squeamish, childish, sexually-inadequate Louis (soon to be number XVI). True, she never actually said “Let them eat cake,” a remark handled here as a throwaway gag, but her obsessions with food, cosmetics, jewels and clothes have the same elitist, entitlement effect.
Playing at being a peasant, she delves into nature to escape the stifling court and her empty royal alliance. “The night Louis and I were married,” she says, “there was a violent thunderstorm and they had to cancel the fireworks and it’s been like that ever since.” That marriage, she amusingly acknowledges, is like “a long suck on a dried prune.”
Against the background of the French Revolution, Adjmi paints a portrait of a clueless ditz not above having an adulterous affair with a handsome soldier, amid other scandalous debaucheries. When her world begins to unravel and the downtrodden rise up, the spoiled lady can only bemoan, “Who will draw my bath?”
Though feeling like “some sort of specimen,” the restless Marie yearns for enlightenment. “I’m badly educated,” she admits. “I can’t make sense of my life.”
It’s when Adjmi takes time out for erudition that the evening falters, however. Pedantry takes over as the unlettered but intellectually curious queen (she pretentiously uses words like “obloquy,” “quotidian” and “animus”) tries to understand Rousseau, Voltaire and La Rochefoucauld. Puzzling out the conflict between “the primacy of human nature” and the belief that “nature could be used as a model for human society” scrambles her brain and halts the show.
As she contemplates her vapid existence, she becomes less human, less pitiful and self-destructive and more a mouthpiece for the author. Adjmi softens the blow by having a human in sheep’s clothing (or vice versa) as Marie’s partner in philosophical discussion, a role acted with his customary authority by the wonderful David Greenspan.
Rebecca Taichman directs with flair and the ride, despite detours, is a whirligig. As Marie, Marin Ireland, though sometimes shrill and inarticulate, is formidable, a torrent of suppressed anger and frustration. As Louis, Steven Rattazzi finds the poor soul’s soft spots in his progress from adolescence to maturity. It’s a moving performance.
The cast is exemplary as is the physical production which mirrors Marie’s descent from riches to rags. This may not be “history” as we thought we knew it, yet it offers glimpses into the lives of clueless aristocrats who rule more by misguided instinct than reason and logic.
Don’t look for the verbal dexterity of Bernard Shaw. But Adjmi has his own distinctive voice and his “Marie Antoinette” is a heady mixture of absurdity and reality.