Off with Her Head: The A.R.T.’s “Marie Antoinette”

by Bryce Lambert on September 17, 2012

Reading over the reviews of the ART’s Marie Antoinette, the consensus seems to be that it’s just not that good. I think there was a lot of pent up anticipation for the play based on the success, and quality, of last season’s smash hit at the Huntington, Candide. The ART here, of course, feigns to be a little more overt in its references to the current politics on inequality, but in the end, this production trades mostly on its lush imagery & costumes, sight gags, and “dance party” interludes.

Playwright David Adjmi’s Marie is a strange one. Actress Brooke Bloom slouches across the stage in a deliberately unaristocratic channeling of some contemporary celebrity who the people love to hate. She has the coarseness of Snooki’s friend Deena on Jersey Shore, the narcissism of Carrie Bradshaw, and the self-righteous silliness of Zooey Deschanel. She is both depraved and deprived; stuck in a foreign land in a sexless marriage, but unable to do little more than soak up flattery and spew insults. At times, we get the sense that there’s an intelligence lurking below Marie’s fiery and frivolous surface, as she’s taken to dropping ten dollar words and opening up her soul to her lover Axel Fersen (Jake Silberman). But, that seems just as likely an invention of her ego.

Marie Antoinette ART Yale Boston

Marie (Brooke Bloom) and Louis (Steven Rattazzi) with Teale Sperling (Joan Marcus)

In the second act, once the palace falls, and we follow Marie and her family through their imprisonment (it’s more of a delayed execution punctuated, dramatically, with false hopes of escape and rescue), she gets better. During the intermission she undergoes a character transformation into a better wife, mother, and an impressively capable woman–even as her fineries are slowly stripped away by her captors. Unfortunately, this comes off as more of a costume change than a curve of her character arc. And that’s really the rub. This incarnation of Marie Antoinette just isn’t enough to support a play. This weak plight of her as this girl raised to be a queen and sent away from her homeland at 14, only to be despised by the people of France and eventually trapped in a political turmoil she can’t comprehend is tediously drilled into us. Sure, we sympathize with her throughout her prolonged self-reflection in Act 2 (actually, that’s really all Act 2 is), but just not that much.

Does Marie need to have depth? Does she have to be some beautifully tragic figure–a punchline of history re-skinned with third wave feminism and a sympathetic eye? No, not if we were dealing with a great, witty satire. But, we’re not. The politics here are thin. There are a few lectures thrown in, one by a barber revolutionary and another by a cynical Austrian sheep, but don’t expect anything beyond a rudimentary thematic connection to the politics of the Occupy movement–one that might as well just come from the Wikipedia article on the French Revolution.

Marie Antoinette ART Boston Brooke Bloom

Marie (Brooke Bloom) and sheep (David Greenspan) (Joan Marcus)

Now, do I need to have my political buttons pushed? No. But, I would have liked to have seen more than the strange aesthetic amalgam director Rebecca Taichman has rendered on the Loeb stage. Although I did appreciate lighting designer Christopher Akerland’s sweeps of color, the lavish costumes and gravity-defying wigs by Gabriel Berry, Riccardo Hernandez’s mirrored and quietly ornate set, and even Matt Acheson’s odd little sheep puppet. Anyone would agree that the show is a triumph for everyone who works in the ART’s shops.

Kind of like a Skrillex single, the production comes off like its trying too hard to be cool, when the narrative pauses and the theater’s speakers pump with inane musical selections including Cher Lloyd’s Swagger Jagger and a Girl Talk mashup. Of course a drag-queen dance party ensues and this Marie takes the chance to show off her ironic dance routines. Thankfully, Steven Rattazzi as Louis XVI and David Greenspan as the Sheep provide some much needed wit and character. Two things the play needs a lot more of to accomplish any of what it purports to do. Perhaps the folks in New Haven will like it when it sets up there after its run at the ART, but with the creative team and cast brought in for this one, I think everyone expected a lot more.

Marie Antoinette at ART Cambridge and Yale Rep

Marie (Brooke Bloom) and sheep (David Greenspan) again (Joan Marcus)

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