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Few things capture the collective imagination like a queen’s story; the more tragic the better. In David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette,” now at Woolly Mammoth, the gay playwright follows the varied spectacle of the doomed royal’s reign with all its high highs and agonizing lows.
We meet the young queen in 1776. If it weren’t for the towering white wigs, we might mistake Marie (Kimberly Gilbert) and her ladies in waiting (Dawn Ursula and Sue Jin Song) for a Lindsay Lohan type and a couple of her fun-loving besties. Lolling around the Jacuzzi, snorting lines off a silver tray, Marie is frivolous and utterly self-absorbed, unaware of any outside tumult. But it’s not a Saturday night at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, this is 16th century Versailles and the stakes are enormous.
Adjmi retells the iconic queen’s tale in contemporary language. At times she sounds like a spoiled Bravo TV reality star. That falsely attributed “Let them eat cake” is delivered as a throwaway line regarding her friend’s junk food-loving kids. Still, Adjmi’s clever and occasionally poetic script hits all the salient points — Marie’s excesses, scandals, frustrations (it took the king seven years to consummate their marriage). Then there’s the harsh imprisonment and eventual date with the guillotine. No big surprises here, but compelling nonetheless.
Marie’s formidable mother, Queen Maria Theresa of Austria, sought a political alliance and not a love match for her daughter. Teenage Marie arrived in France shoddily educated and ill prepared for her position. At one point, Adjmi’s Maries says “I’m practically fucking illiterate.” The playwright relays history through Marie’s perspective — a claustrophobic, mirrored-hall view of the world.
Marie’s ineffectual husband Louis XVI (Joe Isenberg) offers her little insight. He’d rather tinker with his clocks than rule France. And while she enjoys a passing flirtation with a louche Swiss general (Bradley Foster Smith), it never comes to much. And in a surreal twist, an amorous, talking sheep played by out actor Sarah Marshall warns Marie of the public’s growing contempt for her. In obscene revolutionary tracts, Marie is portrayed as an Austrian whore.
Marie doesn’t recognize this caricature. She remembers a happier self in the less fishbowl more bucolic days of her youth in Austria, and longs to swap out elaborate water features and exquisite topiary gardens for waterfalls and forests. But it’s too late. An angry revolution requires enemies.
In a powerhouse performance, Gilbert conjures an ever feisty queen who matures from airhead to strong, complex heroine. A woman with a strong survival instinct who (try as she may) can’t get a handle on her predicament.
The fast-paced production is ably helmed by Yury Urnov. His design team figures prominently in the story telling, adding both spectacle and emotional heft. Misha Kachman’s set begins as an ornate pink and green as pleasure pit/catwalk. Helen Huang ‘s costumes are a fantastic blend of past and present. Eric Shimelonis’ sound is pomp and bad disco. But as the revolution rumbles on and the royal family is arrested, Marie’s adornment is replaced by a shorn head and dirty chemise. The stage is stripped too. And the only sounds are those of clanking doors and a leaky faucet’s ominous drip, drip, drip.
Separated from the king and her son with only lice and her jail guard (the sonorous James Konicek) for company, Marie awaits her fate. The solitude is interrupted with visits from her Swiss general and the sheep returns, advising Marie not to lose her mind. She won’t. Marie assures her fleecy friend that she’s resolute, despite a tremoring hand.
Marie’s is the story of a woman whose life was never really her own.