BWW Review: Spectacular MARIE ANTOINETTE At Brown/Trinity MFA
Providence theatre-goers have the opportunity to spend considerable time in 18th century France this spring--both at Trinity Rep's A Tale of Two Cities, and now at Brown/Trinity's MFA production of MARIE ANTOINETTE. Seeing both productions back-to-back makes for an interesting juxtaposition as Tale of Two Cities takes us into the lives of the over-taxed working class, and MARIE ANTOINETTE takes us into the opulent palace that those taxes built. While Marie Antoinette is not exactly an empathetic figure, it's easy to see why movies and plays are produced about her life. Excess -- in fashion, wealth, and consumption of all kinds -- makes for a visually spectacular extravaganza, and this production leans into that in the most delightful way.
If you're going to set a play in the Palace of Versailles, the set design needs to be on point right from the moment the audience enters, and Zoe Hurwitz's design is perfect both in the way that it looks and the way it functions. Glitzy chandeliers are set so high that you almost don't notice them, but if you do look up glittery detail reinforces the feeling of being at the royal court attending an over-the-top party. The back wall of the stage is mirrored glass that evokes the famous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Then, when the stage lights are adjusted, the glass becomes a window that reveals the disenchanted French peasants ominously gathering outside the palace to overthrow the out-of-touch monarchy.
Costumes by Andrew Jean double down on the excess in Act I. We have shiny corsets, massive panniers, ribbons and sparkles, and all the big wigs (compliments to wig designer Daisy Walker) one would hope for in a show like this. The cast exploits the cumbersome nature of the costumes for laughs, especially Lindsey Steinert as Marie Antoinette, who must adjust her skirt from side-to-side every time she flops dramatically onto a chair or chaise.
Steinert's performance is particularly exceptional. In Act I, she's a petulant young queen tired of being criticized for her every move. She shows some natural political savvy, despite frequent complaints about being undereducated, but reminds us how clueless the monarchy is by proclaiming "It's just so hard being me!" Steinert shifts her performance from madcap fun in Act I to somber reservation in Act II with ease. In her Feb. 28th performance, she also dealt incredibly well with a few minor wardrobe malfunctions, turning them into laugh out loud moments that felt intentional by yelling at her long-suffering ladies' maid Tilly (Danielle Dorfman). Dorfman also dealt with the unexpected issues perfectly by frantically scampering around to get a new fan and rescue an errant hair pin.
Cloteal L. Horne and Caitlin Duffy have smaller roles as Marie Antoinette's friends in the royal court, but both manage to stand out and bring plenty of laughs. Horne in particular is a master of the well-timed reaction face or guffaw that takes an already funny scene to the next level. The whole cast has a phenomenal rapport, and director Josiah Davis keeps the action moving in Act I at an excellent pace.
The tone shifts abruptly in Act II. The revolution has come to the palace, and Marie, King Louis (a hilariously inept Ian Kramer) and the young, spoiled Dauphin (Haley Schwartz) try to flee and are eventually captured and imprisoned. While the sets again work very effectively to shift from palace to prison, the plot unfortunately starts to drag and loses some of the tension. This is less the fault of the production, and more of an overly-pedantic script that suddenly wants to jam in all of the information about the French Revolution in order to explain where we are in history. Some clever editing would have made Act II much more effective, but the cast never lose their commitment to character, and Steinert's performance is heartbreaking as she keeps waking up to find more of her family gone without explanation.
This is a production well worth watching. Performances all around are excellent and despite the grim ending (spoiler alert: Marie was executed in 1793), this is a fun and decadent night of theatre. The cast and director are in their final year of the MFA program, and it will be thrilling to see where they go from here.
Marie Antoinette runs February 27 - March 8, 2019 at at the Pell Chafee Performance Center, 87 Empire St., in Providence. General admission is $15 with a discounted price of $10 for seniors and $7 for students. Tickets are on sale now at Trinity Rep's box office, by phone (401) 351-4242, or online at www.TrinityRep.com/marieantoinette.
Photo: Cloteal L. Horne (left) as Therese De Lamballe, Lindsey Steinert (center) as Marie Antoinette, and Caitlin Duffy (right) as Yolande De Polignac. Photo by Mark Turek.