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Marie Antoinette

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Marin Ireland
Photo by Pavel Antonov.
Having heard that the Soho Rep production of David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette has a running time of 90 minutes, I certainly didn't expect I was in for a detailed, probing examination of one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in history. As it turns out, the play contains quite a lot of historical detail and a great deal of depth for so concise a script.

In this highly creative work, Adjmi has interpreted the axiom "content dictates form" in a unique, brilliant way.The play and the production begin with a broadly comic flourish: Marie (Marin Ireland), presented as a whiny, selfish blonde with a flat, middle-Americanaccent, is chatting with two of the ladies of the court about nothing. All three of the women are bewigged and dressed to the nines.

This scene, and several that follow in Act I of the intermissionless, 90-minute play, calls to mind a spoof from the Carol Burnett show, or perhaps a snippet from one of those fabulous entertainments by Charles Ludlam or Charles Busch. But as the plot thickens and the rumbles of Revolution grow louder, the tone of the writing and the acting changes drastically. Marie is gradually stripped of her wigs, her finery, and her dignity; the inflections of the actors change from over-the-top comic to much more earnest and serious. All of this creates a palpable sense of dread. At the end of the play, we realize that the farcical tone of most of the first act was a set-up that makes Marie's downfall and eventual murder by guillotine seem all the more tragic.

As noted above, the play does not stint on interesting historical detail, even in its loopiest scenes. We learn (or are reminded) that Marie's husband, Louis XVI, had great difficulty in siring children. Robespierre, one of the major architects of the French Revolution, doesn't make an appearance in the play, but his name definitely comes up as Marie's world begins to fall apart. There's even a quick but pointed reference to the so-called "diamond necklace incident," in which Marie was falsely accused of defrauding the crown jewelers of the cost of said necklace —one of the several apparent lies leveled against her in a successful attempt at character assassination that led to bodily assassination.

And what of the infamous "Let them eat cake" pronouncement? Adjmi employs it in a very clever way. The phrase was supposedly uttered by an out-of-touch, above-it-all Marie in response to being told that the peasants of her country had no bread on which to subsist, but there's no evidence that she ever said anything of the kind; it seems to have been just another lie invented to scapegoat her. Here, the phrase is spoken in an innocuous context completely different from that of legend:

I'm such a hypocrite. My kids love junk. They're always after me to buy them sweets —you know, cakes and things. But I make them eat healthy. Then I gorge at parties

Oh, let them eat cake.

Under the expert direction of Rebecca Taichman, Ireland is superb as Marie. The queen's self-absorption at the start of the play is truly repellent, so it's a great tribute to the actress' art that she gains our sympathy as the action progresses. Equally fine is Steven Rattazzi as Louis, initially a stock figure of an impotent, put-upon putz but later a fully-rounded characterization of a flawed yet empathetic husband and father. (In a trouser role, young Aimée Laurence is perfection as the Dauphin, the only one of the queen's four children seen in the play.)

David Greenspan gives another of his typically masterful performances as a sheep (yes, that's right) who's the first to warn Marie that the people of France are not happy with the "haves/have nots" status quo. We don't see much of this sheep for most of the rest of the play, but he returns for a moving colloquy with Marie when things are going very, very badly for her towards the end.

Marsha Stephanie Blake, Jennifer Ikeda, Chris Stack, and Karl Miller are spot-on in supporting roles. Special praise goes to Will Pullen as a revolutionary; the spirit of the furious populace is fully embodied in this solitary, menacing figure, thanks to the actor's intensely focused performance and the high quality of the writing.

For this production, the Soho Rep theater has been configured so that the playing area is only 14 feet deep but 51 feet wide, with the audience seated in two long rows. The most arresting feature of Riccardo Hernandez's smart, minimalist set design is the name "Marie Antoinette," spelled out in huge, white-on-white letters along the back wall. There are very few props and set pieces in the show, but the various locales and situations are clearly communicated by the actors as well as by Anka Lupes' costumes, Stephen Strawbridge's lighting, Matt Hubbs' sound design, and Christopher Ash's projections.

According to a press release for the production, David Adjmi "is beginning a three-year residency with Soho Rep as part of the Mellon Foundation Playwrights Residency." A previous Adjmi work, the supremely vulgar and witless Three's Company spoof 3C, was one of the worst things I've seen on a New York stage in years, and judging from that play alone, I would have viewed this residency as a tremendous mistake. But Marie Antoinette is so far superior to 3C as to defy description, so there's great hope that the Soho Rep's and the Mellon Foundation's faith in Adjmi is justified. This is one of those all too rare shows in which the author, the director, the actors, and the designers are all on the same beautifully written page.

Marie Antoinette
Through November 24
Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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