Bold, capital, white letters fill a white background on a black stage, “MARIE ANTOINETTE.” It’s a slighty toned-down version of the type of stage that might greet fans at a Madonna or Lady Gaga concert.
Marie Antoinette is a historical and cultural icon. She is to 18th century France what Marilyn Monroe is to 1950’s America, and both have been experiencing a bit of a resurgence lately. The obsession with these two iconic women partly is partly rooted their style and sex appeal. Soho Rep’s production certainly highlights these traits, but not as ostentatiously as one might expect. Marie Antoinette’s two New England productions featured three-foot tall wigs and period-centric costumes which changed with every scene. At Soho Rep, the hair only towers half as high, and Marie Antoinette (played by Marin Ireland) is only in one glamorous, contemporary, red, tulle-infused dress throughout her reign until her last final scenes, when she changes into what looks like a giant, dirty pillowcase. The royal court is represented by sets of three-tiered trays of macarons, which are the only set pieces besides a bench and chairs. David Adjmi’s play also mentions the rumors that were spread about Marie’s sexuality by her contemporaries. One pamphlet passing as autobiography recounts her history as a prostitute. Another, her lesbian affairs. Another, her generosity in providing oral sex to an entire batallion.
But another why Marie and Marilyn continue to fascinate us is their lack of control under their circumstances. Both women are portrayed as particularly vulnerable. Marie Antoinette is married away at the age of fourteen to a Louis XVI (, a timid, childish man who is hardly the man to leader a nation on the verge of revolt, let alone satisfy Marie’s personal needs. Marie’s first struggle with the French people occurs when she fails to conceive an heir by her seventh year of marriage, a failure pinned on Marie when the real problem lies with Louis. Marie is also raised to be a queen, which, I assume, also means to spend lavishly. I mean, she and her husband inherit Versailles, whose tagline should be “Making Visitors Uncomfortable With Luxury Since 1682). She knows nothing of the common people’s everyday lives, can we expect her to understand their poverty and dissent? Adjmi’s script also highlights that Marie barely has the reading ability of a child, which means she has no power over the information she receives. This production emphasizes her interest in Rousseau, whose philosophy fittingly discusses how society corrupts the individual. An imaginary talking sheep (David Greenspan) also makes several appearances; perhaps Marie imagines one of the world’s most gullible, naive animals because it is a projection of herself.
At the same time, couldn’t Marie could have taken steps to help the people of her nation, to take an active role in their welfare? Perhaps this approach figures her as more of a First Lady than a queen, but isn’t there something innate in all of us that enables us to overcome our circumstances? Marie isn’t entirely innocent of turning a blind eye to the conditions in France. Part of the reason why the phrase “Let them eat cake” is so emblematic of her character is that it encapsulates both her blissful ignorance and her stubborn disdain for the people. One of the most powerful moments of the play comes in a dialogue between Marie and the sheep in the days leading to her death. He introduces the possibility of a democratic France to her, but Marie turns the idea away, saying that the people “can’t take care of themselves, they can’t make decisions, they aren’t sovereign.” The sheep then turns his friendly, cheerful demeanor into rage, “YOU CAN’T TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF! YOU CAN’T MAKE DECISIONS! YOU AREN’T SOVEREIGN!”
Marie Antoinette explores this underlying question of responsibility and guilt, as well as Marie’s transformation from shallow socialite to lice-infested prisoner. Soho Rep assembles a very talented cast, led by Ireland and Rattazi, whose portrayals of the royal couple reveal the emotional and moral complexity of their situation. The other star of the production is the lighting, by designer Stephen Strawbridge, who fills a sparse set with tons of nuance. Adjmi’s script is just as vibrant as the other elements of the production, although I felt like some scenes were a bit too drawn-out and repetitious, even in its 90-minute running time.