Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through May 10
By ANNE SPISELMAN
What are we to make of Marie Antoinette? That’s the question I kept asking myself as I watched the Chicago premiere of David Adjmi’s play about France’s doomed last queen at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Not only does the playwright present Marie through the lens of contemporary celebrity culture, complete with anachronistic valley girl-accented dialogue, director Robert O’Hara has added a dimension to the story of the downfall of a woman for whom appearances were supremely important. Marie is played by a black actress, Alana Arenas, and the other two women, her ladies in waiting/girlfriends Therese De Lamballe (Tamberla Perry) and Yolande De Polignac (Erika Ratcliff), are black, too. All the men are white.
This may raise race and gender issues Adjmi never intended, but it has intriguing consequences,
especially given the staging. The over-the-top design conjures a mash-up of the high fashion and music video industries, starting with Clint Ramos set featuring a mirrored runway with the audience on either side; oversize white roses overhead, and huge, framed wall-mounted screens at either end. Jeff Sugg’s projections range from a pre-show travelogue about the history of Versailles to act and scene titles that are streaked with blood as the evening and the French Revolution progress. During quieter moments, one can see reflections of the actors through on-screen windows, so they look like they’re in the gardens.
Japhy Weideman’s souped-up lighting and Lindsay Jones’ thumping, hip hop-inflected original music and sound design carry out the fashion show theme, as does the way that the actors strut around on and off the mirrored platform early on. But it’s Dede M. Ayite’s ostentatiously splendid yet slightly tacky costumes and Dave Bova’s wigs and makeup that make the most dramatic impression.
Marie’s costumes also reflect her declining fortunes, and the fact that all her changes take place on stage in front of us reinforces the idea that this celebrity on display is an artificial creation that has little to do with reality. She begins in a tiered pink confection of a satin-rose-encrusted gown with a blond wig so tall she announces that the roof of the royal carriage had to be raised, while her girlfriends wear pastel dresses that are almost as flouncyand they all nibble more-or-less matching macarons. Her outfits, while still elaborate and arguably edgier, become darker later on, and so do lower-and-lower wigs, until at the end her hair is shorn and she’s begging the guard not to make it too short.
The queen’s internal transformation is more difficult to chart. To some extent, the Austrian princess married off at fourteen by her mother, Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, to the soon-to-be Louis XVI is out of her element from the first time we see her seven years after her wedding until her death at 37.
While Sofia Coppola covered similar territory in her highly stylized 2006 film Marie Antoinette (starring Kirsten Dunst), using a New Wave/post punk soundtrack but authentic Versailles settings, Arenas’ performance combines the functionally illiterate Marie’s airhead frivolousness with a rather confounding emerging intelligence and awareness. One minute, she’s screeching about her dissatisfaction with something, impatiently reprimanding her husband and son, or complaining about any number of things from her homesickness for Austria to all the rules imposed on her in France. The next, she’s admitting she doesn’t know what to (when a talking sheep brings warnings that the people have turned against her), enduring imprisonment with a measure of stoicism (she says her mother taught her not to fear death), and finally, declaring that history will make her immortal.
Yet her capriciousness makes it impossible to have any sympathy for her. Although she fears for her safety and urges escape, her sense of entitlement is so strong, she sabotages the flight by insisting on a stop to ask the local farmers what a windmill is for, even though she and Louis are pretending to be farmers themselves. Her obliviousness and deep indifference to the outside worldeven her notion of nature is a fake pastoral settingcome through again and again, as the script sometimes obliquely ticks off the historical incidents responsible for the shift in her public image from admired royal consort to hated foreign intruder.
If Marie is willful and erratic, Tim Harper’s Louis XVI is is a bumbling, indecisive incompetent who’d rather play with putting clock parts together than rule the country, has little regard for his appearance, and has to be dragged to the doctorby Marie’s brother, Joseph (Keith D. Gallagher)–for a simple operation that will enable him to father children. The queen also has a possible lover in the mysterious Swedish Axel Fersen (Ariel Shafir), though the exact nature of their intimacy remains vague here. Alan Wilder’s Sheep is something of an enigma, too; besides bearing bad news Marie refuses to believe, it’s not clear if he’s also supposed represent some facet of her view of nature.
Adjmi brings in a couple of representatives of the French Revolution (Tim Frank), but the vision of the democracy to come is no better than that of the monarchy on its way out. Lost in the shuffle somehow are the people who suffered under Louis and Marie and thereafter. Is the playwright suggesting that they’re the same people who created the cult of celebrity and the Marie we see before us? I’m still not sure, and at the end of Steppenwolf’s production, however entertaining it was to watch, I didn’t really care.