BWW REVIEW: MARIE ANTOINETTE Sheds Light on Royal Pain
Written by David Adjmi; directed by Rebecca Taichman; choreographed by Karole Armitage; scenic design, Riccardo Hernandez; costume design, Gabriel Berry; lighting design, Christopher Akerlind; sound design, Matt Hubbs; puppet design, Matt Acheson; fight choreographer, J. David Brimmer; commissioned and developed by Yale Repertory Theatre
Cast in alphabetical order:
Joseph/Mr.Sauce, Fred Arsenault; Marie Antoinette, Brooke Bloom; Yolande de Polignac/Mrs. Sauce, Hannah Cabell; The Dauphin, Andrew Cekala; Sheep, David Greenspan; Royalist, Vin Knight; Marie’s Coterie, Jo Lampert; Therese de Lamballe, Polly Lee; Louis XVI, Steven Rattazzi; Axel Fersen, Jake Silbermann; Marie’s Coterie, Teale Sperling; Guard, Brian Wiles
Now through September 29, American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and may be purchased online at www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org or by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300
“Marie led a decadent and pampered lifestyle, but she was ultimately more clueless than cruel. Her existence was comfortable, controlled, isolated, and carefully managed – until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t anymore.” – Eli Keehn, A.R.T. Guide
When David Adjmi began working on his darkly comic play Marie Antoinette in 2006, the world hadn’t yet spun into the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. The gaping divide between the 1% and the 99% hadn’t become part of America’s consciousness, and the only people occupying Wall Street were investment bankers and Bernie Madoff.
Now Adjmi’s examination of Louis XVI’s infamously self-indulgent and insensitive queen seems almost prescient, drawing parallels between the class warfare that led to the French Revolution and the economic disparities that have polarized the U.S. today. In his own words, Adjmi observes about his play, “It’s pathetically more relevant now than it was when I wrote it.”
Yet, for all its talk of giving the privileged class exemptions while balancing France’s then near-bankrupt economy on the highly taxed backs of the middle class and working poor, Marie Antoinette is first and foremost a satiric look at celebrity worship run amok. Think Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton, teenagers thrust into the limelight long before they were equipped to handle it. Shaped, manipulated, and defined by their handlers, the paparazzi, and the salivating public, they, as Marie, were first adored and then just as intensely excoriated, simply for being what everyone wanted them to be in the first place.
In Marie Antoinette, Adjmi has smartly drawn his hapless heroine as a complex mix of self-centered brat and stifled woman of will. Sent to marry the Dauphin of France at the tender age of 14, the Austrian-born princess was never schooled in mathematics, reading, languages, or diplomacy. Virtually illiterate, she was trained only in the pleasantries of the court. Her role as queen was singular – to entertain as lavishly as possible, even if that meant putting herself quite literally on display for all of Versailles to see.
Is it any wonder, then, that as tensions between the “Haves” and the “Have Nots” in 18th century France began to escalate to the point of catastrophe, Marie was equipped to do only what she’d always done: console herself in frivolous diversions and extravagance. Bound to support and acquiesce, at least publicly, to the rule and wishes of her inept king, she became the easy target for the commoners’ hatred. Taunted, gossiped about, and accused of outlandish improprieties in grotesque cartoons and even a derisive “autobiography,” Marie was a prisoner in her own palace long before guards of the National Assembly locked her away as a traitor.
As the misunderstood monarch, Brooke Bloom is a whirling dervish of insecurity wrapped in bravado. She manifests her character’s stifled desires and unexplored potential with every anguished breath she takes. A nervously twitching foot signals the “wildly beating bird” trapped inside of her. A voice filled with tension and disbelief expresses the confused exasperation of a woman who truly does not understand the consequences of her own behavior. Sympathetic but also annoying, Bloom melds innocence and entitlement into an utterly mesmerizing portrayal – one that is as tragically ironic as it is brazenly funny.
In one particularly poignant scene with her prison guard (Brian Wiles) – her only remaining connection to the outside world once she is scheduled for execution – Bloom masterfully reveals the queen who could have been. Still eager for knowledge and sincere human contact, she wears down her jailor’s reserve until finally they engage in conversation. As he speaks of democracy, she struggles to understand. She has no magical epiphany, but she does listen. Bloom offers hints that, with proper nurturing, Marie could have felt empathy for her subjects instead of disdain. In her final hours, Marie has at last begun to grow up. Sadly, it’s too late, and Bloom’s visceral realization of this is quietly devastating.
As Marie’s oblivious – and apparently spineless – royal husband, Steven Rattazzi also draws sympathy. A teenager, as well, when he ascended the throne, his Louis is petulant and immature, but also an unwilling victim of his own upbringing and circumstance. A reluctant ruler who prefers to lavish attention on his collection of clocks than tend to affairs of state, he fears his own shadow, pacing and cowering at the slightest confrontation. What makes Rattazzi’s portrayal of this ineffectual introvert so winning, however, is that with every wince he makes it painfully clear that Louis is aware of his own shortcomings – and he hates himself for it.
Initially Marie hates his cowardice, too. But as the years go by, and they share the loss of children along with the public’s adoration, an unspoken bond begins to manifest between them. Amidst the bickering there is now a growing respect, one which culminates in their very best moment at the worst of all possible times.
Playwright Adjmi (Elective Affinities, The Evildoers) has managed to balance Marie Antoinette’s wild mood swings – from outlandish whimsy to looming menace – with great skill and panache. One minute Marie and her BFFs are cavorting in the countryside dressed as Little Bo Peep, the next minute an anthropomorphized sheep (David Greenspan) breaks away from the flock and warns Marie that the people are mad and she should “step carefully.” This alternately playful and foreboding duality simultaneously informs and entertains, weaving historical fact with extrapolated fiction. The result is a very satisfying, and at times gut-wrenching play whose contemporary message is woven seamlessly into the fabric of a very tumultuous parallel universe.
Marie Antoinette’s integrated duality is heightened even further by Rebecca Taichman’s imaginative direction, Karole Armitage’s party girl choreography, and Riccardo Hernandez and Gabriel Berry’s stylishly anachronistic sets and costumes. In the first act, Louis XVI meets Victoria’s Secret, with floor-to-ceiling gilded mirrors peacefully coexisting with disco mirror balls; with damask wall coverings, three-foot-high wigs and ridiculously-wide panniers looking right at home alongside revealing bustiers and sexy thongs. This deliberate clash of design cultures creates a visually macabre fun-house world that simultaneously evokes and lampoons both the historical period and the present day.
In act two, however, the mood shifts dramatically. An inches-thick layer of dirt and ash now covers the floor. Canons and gunfire are heard outside the blood-spattered walls. The stage has become a world demolished by the Reign of Terror. In the end, the only life left is Marie’s indomitable spirit – and the memory of a haunting performance by Brooke Bloom.
Once Marie Antoinette ends her reign at the A.R.T. in Cambridge on September 29, she moves to Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Perhaps at the end of that run (October 26 – November 17), she’ll make an attempt to “occupy” Broadway. Stay tuned.
“Her last words were, ‘I did not do it on purpose.’ She was not speaking of her role, however large or small it was, in the downfall of the extraordinarily privileged monarchical system in which she had participated essentially since birth. Rather, she was speaking to her executioner; upon mounting the guillotine platform, she’d accidentally stepped on his foot.” – Eli Keehn, A.R.T. Guide
PHOTOS BY JOAN MARCUS: Hannah Cabel as Yolande, Brooke Bloom as Marie Antoinette, and Polly Lee as Therese at the Palace of Versailles; Brooke Bloom; Andrew Cekala as The Dauphin, Brooke Bloom and Brian Wiles as the Guard; Brooke Bloom and Steven Rattazzi as Louis XVI with Marie's Coterie; David Greenspan as the Sheep with Brooke Bloom; Andrew Cekala, Steven Rattazzi and Brooke Bloom