According to Adjmi, then-President George W. Bush was the impetus in 2006 for writing Marie Antoinette as the playwright explored the theme of a naïf inserted into a power position, more as a result of family background than personal capability or intention. As a result of his research and the creative process, Adjmi found Antoinette to be a sympathetic figure, and this attitude comes across in his portrayal of her throughout the play. He gives her character the opportunity to respond to the many accusations that were leveled at her while letting us see the toll that those attacks took on her. By the end, she is more to be pitied than censured.
The play follows a linear path from Marie's early days at court, munching on bonbons and complaining to her girlfriends about how difficult it is to be Queen, through the ever louder rumblings of discontent that lead to the outbreak of the French Revolution, to the dissolution of the Monarchy, and the ultimate fate of Marie and her husband King Louis XVI. She is an outsider (from Austria), always under observation, and married to an adolescent who would rather fiddle with old clocks than produce an heir to the throne, leading the populace to presume that she is barren. Having grown up in a life of privilege, groomed to be pairedat the age of 14with a foreign head of state to secure a relationship between their two countries, Marie is a product of her upbringing as one of the one-percenters, as much as her impoverished subjects are representative of the ninety-nine percenters.
Director Rebecca Taichman's staging is imaginative, making use of eclectic musical styles, Karole Armitage's unique choreography, and designer Christopher Akerlind's lighting changes to move quickly between scenes, even having most of Marie's costume changes occur before our eyes. Brooke Bloom is mesmerizing in the title role as she transforms from entitled Valley Girl to an older, slightly wiser woman who is just beginning to understand what it means to be Queen as she is about to make the final sacrifice. Bloom capably hits all the right comic notes when Marie is being clueless, and projects sufficient gravitas when the Queen starts to wake up to the reality of her situation. She is onstage for most of the play, commanding our attention as we wait to see what her next metamorphosis will be.
Bloom's chemistry with the entire cast is organic, but she and Steven Rattazzi exquisitely portray the frustrating nature of the relationship between Marie and Louis. His character is inept and immature at the start, but Rattazzi shows his development with moments of strength and sensitivity. Jake Silbermann is smooth with a serpent-like quality as Axel Fersen, rumored to be Marie's paramour. A life-size talking sheep puppet, designed by Matt Acheson and wonderfully manipulated and voiced by David Greenspan, is arguably Marie's most loyal friend, warning her of events to come if she is not careful. Her human friends Yolande de Polignac and Therese de Lamballe are challenged by Marie's demanding personality, and Hannah Cabell and Polly Lee respectively walk a fine line between acolyte and sycophant, reacting appropriately when trying to please the Queen.
Twelve year old Andrew Cekala from Weston, sympathetic as The Dauphin, is a young man with talent who already has a handful of local theater credits, including a 2011 IRNE nomination. Rounding out the first-rate ensemble are Brian Wiles as an uncompromising prison guard, Fred Arsenault as Joseph II who visits from Austria to encourage consummation of the royal marriage, and Vin Knight, Jo Lampert and Teale Sperling as members of Marie's entourage who feed her, clothe her and wait on her hand and foot.
Adjmi writes with flair and gives the dialogue a contemporary feel, even as he incorporates words and phrases that evoke the historical time period. His characters are three-dimensional; consequently, the audience develops ambivalent sentiments about the royal couple. Louis wasn't evil, but he was certainly in over his head and made wrong choices. Marie didn't know any other way to live until it was too late. One can only imagine which party affiliation they'd have in today's democratic society, but Adjmi implies that their experiences during the Revolution opened their eyes to the suffering of the masses and altered their world view. If you think you know the whole story, Marie Antoinette may alter your view, as well.
Marie Antoinette, performances through September 29 at American Repertory Theater, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.americanrepertorytheater.org. Written by David Adjmi, Directed by Rebecca Taichman; 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; Stage Manager, Amanda Spooner; Choreographer, Karole Armitage
Cast (in alphabetical order): Fred Arsenault, Brooke Bloom, Hannah Cabell, Andrew Cekala, David Greenspan, Vin Knight, Jo Lampert, Polly Lee, Steven Rattazzi, Jake Silbermann, Teale Sperling, Brian Wiles