By: David Sheward
At first, it seems as if David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette will run out of steam after about 20 minutes. The basic premise is to have the 18th-century Queen of France and her court speak and act like contemporary Kardashians, entitled bubbleheads complaining about the burdens of wealth and fame and totally clueless as to why the peasants are revolting. ("They’re always angry," whines Marie.)
But as the distant cries of discontent turn into the screams of terror and Marie is gradually stripped of her luxuries, the downtrodden monarch becomes a pitiful lost figure, an uncomprehending victim of history. As she is about to be beheaded, she engages in a dream-like debate with a sheep on the topics of democracy, class, and politics, which is eerie and frightening in its unsparing depiction of the forces of destiny. Marie explains she had no choice but to become a thoughtless figurehead, that’s how she was brought up. The sheep rails back that she can’t even take care of herself so how can she take care of an entire country? The dizzy, obvious comedy of the early scenes gives way to dispassionate reality, revealed in a hallucination.
Director Rebecca Taichman masterfully balances the disparate styles of satire, fantasy, and verisimilitude, as does a skillful cast. But the chief burden is placed on Marin Ireland in the title role, and she carries it off as magnificently as she wears costumer Anka Lupes’s lush ballgown and wig designer Amanda Miller’s towering headdress. From the moment Ireland’s Marie rushes onstage at the opening, whispering an apology for being late (totally in character), to Marie’s final epiphany just before she loses her head, Ireland finds seemingly infinite variations on narcissism. She becomes a screaming, spoiled child when thwarted, a charming coquette to achieve her aims, an imprisoned lioness when her son is taken from her, and a dozen other versions of the same fascinating woman.
Steve Rattazzi is equally complex as her ineffectual, infantile husband, King Louis XVI, and David Greenspan manages to make the sheep an intriguing symbol of the forces uprooting Marie’s world.
The play was previously presented in more elaborate productions at Yale Repertory Theatre and American Repertory Theatre. It’s now at the intimate Off-Broadway Soho Rep, where set designer Riccardo Hernandez has reconfigured the space as a long, shallow strip with a stark white backdrop featuring the title royal’s name in raised white letters. With the aide of Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, the confining environment transforms from a gilded cage to a stark prison with ominous shadows stretching across the blank wall. Matt Hubbs’s sound design frighteningly re-creates the sounds of the bloodthirsty mob.
Oct. 20-Nov. 24. Soho Rep, 46 Walker St., NYC. Tue-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 3pm & 7:30pm, Sun 7:30pm. Running time 90 minutes with no intermission. $35-50. (866) 811-4111. www.ovation tix.com
Photo: Pavlel Antonov