The title character’s hairdo isn’t the only thing reaching too high in “Marie Antoinette,” a new show written by David Adjmi and directed by Rebecca Taichman. As befitting its enlightenment era context, lots of ideas are thrown around—many philosophers are referenced and many parallels are drawn to the reviled one percenters of Occupy movement vernacular—but when push comes to shove (or heads come to roll), none of these thoughts are developed clearly enough to leave a lasting impression. Though the production—playing at the American Repertory Theater through September 29—benefits from stunning stage design and an array of extravagant costumes as mouth-watering as the trays of French sweets that frame them, the script of “Marie Antoinette” has little to offer in the way of textual significance.
“Marie Antoinette” chronicles the reign, removal, and eventual beheading of France’s most infamous queen. The first half of the play consists of a series of comic vignettes: Marie (Brooke Bloom) is seen gossiping with her girlfriends, playing at shepherdess, and so on. These scenes, while arranged chronologically, are only peripherally concerned with specific events, seeming to exist in the same state of floaty vacuousness as Marie herself. Act two, in contrast, is essentially an hour-long, exceedingly dour march to the scaffold.
Though the French queen’s demise is well trodden material, a novel viewpoint might have injected life into this somewhat battle-worn premise. However, a unifying theme is just what seems to be lacking in “Marie Antoinette.” Adjmi’s script is not without its merits—there are witty barbs galore—but its want of a clear message leaves one puzzled and ultimately dissatisfied.
Several issues figure into the play’s opacity. One is the absence of characters that we can root for. In “Marie Antoinette,” the existence of two camps, haves and have-nots, is obvious. But with whom is the audience meant to empathize? Certainly not the strident, razor-wielding youth who spouts maxims at Marie as he hacks off her hair. But it’s equally hard to feel for the out-of-touch royal couple who bemoan their celebrity status and resort to questioning a country bumpkin in order to determine whether windmills have any non-aesthetic purpose. This is a hard sell at best, made more difficult by scenes where Marie is confronted by a philosopher-sheep (David Greenspan) who challenges her worldviews. These scenes, while amusing enough, threaten to breach the line separating artsy from silly.
However befuddled one may be as to the point of the play, one does not leave the theater questioning Bloom’s commitment to her role. Her vision of Marie Antoinette may not be deserving of the melodramatic send-off Adjmi has written her, but Bloom makes the best of what she has to work with. Her Marie is a coddled, poorly educated (by her own reckoning, “virtually illiterate”) nymph whose inefficacy and hyperactivity find an outlet in sky-high hairdos and gowns whose dimensions are suggestive of a drag force equation. If Bloom’s Marie is not twitching her way up and down the stage, she’s swaying in place or tapping her shoes. By the intermission, one is persuaded to pity the fool, and Marie takes on a new dimension in Act two. Held captive and compelled to defend positions she cannot understand, Marie’s agitated state conveys a sort of plucky resolve one cannot help but admire.
The other 12 actors in the production are given comparatively little to work with. Steven Rattazzi is pleasingly buffoonish as the Louis XVI, but his portrayal of the doomed king as a man-child incapable of making adult decisions hardly covers new ground. Jake Silbermann is debonair as can be in the role of Marie’s lover Axel Fersen, but his character’s sole function is to act as a sort of human springboard: his throw-away lines only to prompt Marie’s weightier monologues.
The textual failings of “Marie Antoinette” are very nearly compensated for by the richness of the show’s design. In Act one, garish lights bathe each scene in a hue that is at once electrifying and sickly sweet. The effect is to underscore both the excesses of Marie’s court and the frenetic nature of Marie herself. In Act two, a spotlight renders her powdered face stunningly ghost-like, highlighting her impending doom. Equally impressive are the efforts of costume designer Gabriel Berry. Far more engaging then many of the characters in “Marie Antoinette” are the gowns, shoes, and wigs they are garbed in.
Despite the elaborate costumes design and admerable performances from the leads, “Marie Antionette” ultimately fails to support its visual aesthetics.