In its program, the A.R.T. links today’s 1% with the French aristocracy, a stab at relevance that does both the snobby thugs of the French Revolution and the super affluent of today a disservice. Say what you will about the 1%, but they aren’t stupid.
Marie Antoinette by David Adjmi. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. Choreographed by Karole Armitage. Co-produced by the American Repertory Theater and the Yale Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through September 29.
By Bill Marx.
“Heads Will Roll” is plastered on the front cover of the American Repertory Theater program for its (and Yale Rep’s) world premiere production of Marie Antoinette. This is a play about the French Revolution so heads do roll, but do they always have to rotate the same way?
Dramatist David Adjmi, who authored the critically admired off-Broadway production of Elective Affinities, takes a surprisingly conventional look at the life of the doomed queen who casually suggested (allegedly) that her starving people eat cake. Yes, we have some fashionably kinky accents, from gowned royals spewing obscenities and a talking sheep to a sassy rap interlude (The Donkey Show kicks at the barricades), but generally there is little here that is fresh, that departs from the melodramatic MGM film version starring Norma Shearer as Marie. We are asked to laugh at the superficial spendthrift indifferent to the increasingly dangerous reality around her and then feel empathy for the martyr packed off to eternity without the benefit of humanity.
At least I think we are supposed to take this storyline earnestly; a morality tale about a girl from Austria raised to be a child-producing royal ornament. But given the play’s ersatz-tragic Shakespearean ending, which has the dying Marie envisioning herself becoming part of history, Ajmi may be angling for parody. Ultimately, Ajmi’s attitude to the historical material is a puzzle that you give up trying to figure out. The dramatist’s Marie is clueless but dutiful: the first half of the script is essentially a series of foul-mouthed sitcom sketches, ranging from the title character’s absurd appetites and degenerating popular image to hubby Louis XVI’s unusual sexual blockage and love of clocks. The second half turns much darker, with Marie, son, and hubby on the lam from the rebellious downtrodden, concluding with prison scenes, complete with tormenting revolutionaries, that attempt to generate some poignancy for the fallen rulers. Almost as an afterthought, Adjmi brings in some ghostly visitors to wage a cardboard thin debate with the arrogant-to-the-end Marie about the egalitarian power of democracy versus the inhumane rule of the God-chosen elites.
In its program, the A.R.T. links today’s 1% with the French aristocracy, a stab at relevance that does both the snobby thugs of the French Revolution and the super greedy of today a disservice. Say what you will about the 1%, but they aren’t stupid. At the very least, they are smart enough to be (or to hire) the most expensive and brilliant lawyers, managers, and financial advisers around, thus ensuring they gain more control at every downturn or uptick of the world economy. And really, what major regional stage company would mount a play that might actually alienate the 1%, whose generous contributions to the cause of art would undoubtedly be most welcome? Both sides of the mega-moneyed ideological divide—let’s say David Geffen and the Koch Brothers—would sit through this production undisturbed by thoughts of the downwardly mobile sharpening their blades. Marie is an example of the anachronistic rich, the blue-blooded dopes who didn’t know enough to rig the rules of the new game for their benefit. She is either to be laughed at or pitied. The 99% in the audience won’t be stirred into once again setting up Occupy camps.
As Marie Antoniette, Brooke Bloom does well by the myopic, comic braggadocio the part demands. Terminally anxious, sometime shill, sometimes gruff, her Marie is a tough-talking lowbrow who is in some ways an innocent because she has been bred to overlook reality. Most of the jokes stem from the hair-raising disconnect between her ditsy delusions of grandeur and what is actually going on around her. When the script calls for a more modulated attitude from Marie, such as bitter defiance against her vengeful jailers or genuine concern for her husband and child, Bloom can’t shed the trappings of caricature, though Adjmi doesn’t help much because you can’t tell whether he is sending the character up. The rest of the supporting cast are not given that much to work with, though Steven Rattazzi, as Louis XVI, has a moment or two when he is allowed to suggest that there is a suffering human being underneath the blithering buffoon, but it is too little much too late. The tragic aspect of this “tragicomic” play never materializes.
What takes its place in Marie Antoinette are engaging visuals. Director Rebecca Taichman, costume designer Gabriel Berry, set designer Riccardo Hernandez, and choreographer Karole Armitage have a lot of fun putting eye-catching frosting on this airy cake via three-feet-tall hairdos, deconstructed eighteenth-century costumes, bright colors, anachronistic music interludes, and herky-jerky dancing. The quartet inject enough playful bits and pieces of imagination into the proceedings to make them pass by amusingly enough, sometimes coming up with striking stage images. The sight of acres of dirt falling from the sky after the social order turns upside-down is terrific, as is the cameo of a carousel horse. I am not a big Enlightenment talking sheep fan, especially one who appears to be more enamored of Rousseau than Diderot, but Matt Acheson’s puppet is a lovable emissary of natural (?) facts.
Ironically, for all the talk about radical departures, Marie Antoinette suggests at least one major point of continuity between the Robert Brustein/ Robert Woodruff regimes at the A.R.T. and the theater under its current artistic director Diane Paulus. Then and now, when the dramatic meat and potatoes are watery gruel, the solution is to let them eat images.