Teenage Queen: A 'Marie Antoinette' for the age of Occupy

Absurdly tall wigs held aloft by stage wires. A talking sheep. An 18th-century queen who speaks like a modern-day valley girl. Acclaimed playwright David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette” is no typical look at the guillotined French royal.

The modern sensibility and rich themes of Adjmi’s brisk and lively script, the larger-than-life mise-en-scène and the play’s farcical and absurdist elements could create an inventive and moving production. As directed by Rebecca Taichman in this co-production between Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theater, the production achieves many powerful moments, though it has a little ways to go to reach its full potential.

The play, which moves from Marie’s pampered days at Versailles to her final ones in prison in 1793, is a challenge to perform. It is a tragicomedy with elements of farce, a reality-show romp that descends into darkness. It is a testament to everyone involved that, for the most part, the production succeeds at both. In portraying Marie as a clueless teenage celebutante (the real-life Marie was poorly educated and only 14 when she married the French king), Marin Ireland demonstrates endless energy and the skill to portray both vapidity and raw, affecting emotion. As Marie’s husband, King Louis XVI, Steven Rattazzi pulls off a moving transformation from dithering to dignified. The superb design team has created striking images and effects—including a magnificent display of glittering palace excess and, by contrast, a very effective use of stage dirt—that establish place and character, advance plot and underscore themes like artifice, consumption and excess.

The big elements of the production work well. Where the production is less successful is in the more subtle details. Overlapping dialogue is sometimes hard to understand. Marie’s lover’s feelings for her, and his function at the end of the play, are a bit uncertain. That talking sheep (David Greenspan), an intriguing and challenging piece of theater, feels like it is still in development. Most importantly, several moments lose their full impact due to Ireland’s loose-limbed physicality and, more frequently, her valley-girl inflections. Reining it in at key moments could allow for a stronger emotional connection with the audience.

The rich themes of Adjmi’s script shine forth regardless. Ideas about authenticity and artifice, the perils of over-consumption, and nature versus society—themes Adjmi has explored in previous works—are touched on in clever and thought-provoking ways. The theme of consumption, for example, is deftly revealed through the numerous instances of and references to eating in the play, both frivolous and fearsome. Adjmi shrewdly shows how a super-consumer like Marie Antoinette, far from spontaneously bursting into existence, was partly created and supported by the society and culture at large—who therefore bear part of her guilt. 

“I wasn’t raised I was built: I was built to be this thing,” Marie says, “and now they’re killing me for it.”

When society turns against Marie, it becomes a more frightening “consumer” than she. “They threatened to roast me on a spit,” says Marie of the mob she encounters. “They want to EAT me.”

There are obvious parallels here to 21st-century consumer society and its role in our economic crisis, as well as today’s voracious, often vicious celebrity culture. The play is surprisingly timely given that it was written in 2006. Adjmi has said he had George W. Bush on the brain while writing, but there are clearer connections to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The play also touches on topics relevant to 18th-century politics and philosophy, such as the nature of power, religion versus reason and, as mentioned, nature versus society. The latter is one of the more spiritually interesting themes of the play. In Act Two, Sheep tells Marie about Rousseau’s belief that people are inherently good but corrupted by society. The play explores two sides of this. On one hand, we see how a persona like Marie Antoinette’s was the work of many hands, and in vulnerable moments we see glimpses of the woman she might have been but for “society.” On the other hand, in the ironies of the Terror—an exercise of evil in the name of virtue—we see the danger in underestimating humanity’s inherent dark side.

“Marie Antoinette, c’est moi,” Adjmi has said. He was referring to his personal connection with the character, but his statement also suggests something spiritually profound about our celebrity culture. While most of us will never live the life of a celebrity like Marie Antoinette, the lives of the privileged can nonetheless serve as mirrors to humanity as a whole. When it comes to celebrities, we are simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by their larger-than-life oscillations between success and failure, virtue and sin, happiness and despair that play out each week in the tabloids. With the extremity of their highs and lows, and the often archetypal roles they are cast in by the media, celebrities—like the gods in Greek myths or the figures in fairy tales—function as an excellent mirror to the best and worst in society and in the human soul. In the celebrity mirror we get, magnified in all its beauty and ugliness, a good look at ourselves. And the sight, even when it is as terrible as a car wreck, is hard to look away from.

What we learn from this celebrity mirror is manifold. None of us is perfect. Human heroes can always let us down. Both angel and devil are within us. And, most strikingly, that where there is a fall there is room for redemption. And that sometimes we need to lose everything—even our life—to gain it. In “Marie Antoinette” it is ironically when Marie is stripped of her title and her freedom, her husband and her son, that she most truly begins to realize what it means to be a woman and a wife, a mother and a queen. It is as she moves closer to physical death that she comes closest to claiming her own life. It is a development that moves not only Marie, but the audience as well. As any sinner—or down-on-his-luck celebrity—can tell you, there’s nothing more inspiring than a comeback.

Photos © T. Charles Erickson, 2012.

View clips from 'Marie Antoinette' and interviews with cast and crew.

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