Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Theater Review: Marie Antoinette -- Yale Rep

David Greenspan and Marin Ireland in Marie Antoinette. Photo © T. Charles Erickson, 2012.
A Revolutionary Look at France’s Doomed Queen
By Lauren Yarger
I can’t think of any better night to be sitting in the audience for the world premiere of David Adjmi’s screwy play Marie Antoinette at Yale Rep than Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6. Most of us there were checking our cell phones before and after the 8 pm performance as well as during intermission for presidential election results.
The significance wasn’t lost as Marie’s fate, at the hands of an angry nation, played out on stage while outside, Americans flocked to the polls to make their voices known in an election where division between wealthy and poor once again was front and center stage. 
In this sumptuous, eye-pleasing version of the last days of Marie Antoinette, Adjmi interjects modern thoughts into history from France’s bloody Revolution to create a remarkable, thought-provoking and witty theatrical experience. 
When we first meet Marie (Marin Ireland), she and her court friends, better educated Yolande de Polignac (Hannah Cabell) and culturally savvy Therese de Lamballe (Polly Lee), are nibbling away on decadent cake (get it?), chatting about whale bone corsets and bemoaning the whispers that the “doomed experiment” of democracy in America might be headed their way.
“These rumors. It hurts my head,” says Marie prophetically as her three-foot wig, supported by rigging, nods her confusion.
Being queen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After all, she has to be on public display all the time and set the nation’s fashion (wonderfully accomplished by costume designer Gabriel Berry’s beautiful, yet practical 17th-Century/modern hybrids). She also has to be married to the childish and boorish Louis XVI (a very funny Steven Rattazzi) who is afraid of having delicate surgery that would allow him to consummate their marriage of seven years. Marie isn’t exactly waiting around for Louis and becomes involved with handsome Swede Axel Fersen (Jake Silbermann).
Marie’s brother, Joseph (Fred Arsenault) brings news of their Austrian Empress Mother’s wrath over Marie’s inability to produce an heir and he convinces an embarrassed Louis to go under the knife. Marie produces a Dauphin (Ashton Woerz).
The queen’s popularity continues to decline, however, amidst a tabloid campaign (in the form of pamphlets in those days) with tales of her promiscuity and her actions involving a necklace with which she supposedly tried to defraud the people. As she escapes to the pleasure of playing peasant at L’Hameau, the fake farm she constructs, the real poor of the country rise up, storm the Bastille and capture the royal family. 
Her only real friend is a strange sheep (a puppet, operated, voiced and mimicked in action by David Greenspan) who tries to tell her the truth about her unpopularity (puppet design is by Matt Acheson). Later, Greenspan, this time sans puppet, but clad in a fleecy white formal coat, black leggings and a red tie to match the sheep’s appearance, comforts a freely cursing, miserable, wigless Marie in her cell as she awaits the guillotine.
Now if that all sounds a little odd, it is, but delightfully so. Adjmi (Stunning, The Evildoers) combines wit, historical facts and razor-sharp characters to create a really insightful look into these historic characters – and at a time when mobs of poor, unkempt Occupy Wall Street protesters focusing on the nation’s wealthy and screaming “I’m the 99 percent” makes us realize that we have more in common with Revolutionary France than we might have realized (and again, seeing the show on the night of an historic presidential election was a treat better than cake.)
The action plays out against yellow-toile-covered walls with whimsical set pieces and props accenting the various scenes (set design by Riccardo Hernandez), some involving startling special effects accompanied by dramatic sounds of the revolution (sound design by Matt Hubbs).
Ireland is fun to watch as she chews up and spits out just about everything she comes in contact with while maintaining that she just wants the simple life. Rattazzi is even more amusing when he gets in her way. Brian Wiles, Jo Lampert, Vin Knight and Teale Sperling round out the ensemble. Director Rebecca Taichman does a nice job putting the tale together, using choreography by Karole Armitage to have the actors deliberately move between scenes and place props. It’s like watching people deliberately walk to their doom. One criticism: Taichman needs to clean up some of Ireland’s fast-paced, yelling dialogue, which is very difficult to understand, particularly at the top of the play.
Marie Antoinette was commissioned by Yale Rep and is presented in co-production with American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. It runs through Nov. 17 at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Tickets range from $20-96, and are available online at, by phone at 203-432-1234, and in person at the Yale Rep Box Office (1120 Chapel Street). Student, senior, and group rates are also available. 

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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