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MARIE ANTOINETTE at Soho Rep

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.

Marin Ireland as Marie Antoinette
Marin Ireland as Marie Antoinette

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.

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney at Soho Rep

No lies, I was staring at that plate of food during the whole play

It’s often easy to ignores the bureaucratic banalities and ethical problems that lie behind artistic genius. We alienate celebrity figures and their works fromany semblance of reality in much the same way that Disney World is alienated from the rest of Florida. In A Public Reading, the central conflict is precisely Disney’s struggle to remove himself from reality– to become an eternal figurehead of escape and happiness.

That’s not to say Disney is  a happy man himself. At least, not when he’s out of his own head. When he humbles himself enough to interact with his brother Roy, his daughter, and his son-in-law, he’s a resentful, proud, and power-hungry man. But when he’s inside his thoughts in true megalomaniac fashion, he’s his own best company. Still,  the play excellently depicts Walt’s (a hauntingly good Larry Pine) relationship with his family, using largely brief fragmented dialogue to display their struggle in genuine communication.

What A Public Reading does best however, is depict a genius who, as time and old age sets in, is seeing his work fall prey to various forces. Walt can’t seem to have anything original or authentic anymore. If you’re a Walter Benjamin nut like me, you might follow my train of thought a bit better– Benjamin was a 1930s critic who claimed that modernity robs art of a certain ‘aura’ that existed when a piece of art could not be reproduced. So let’s say that a piece of art like the Mona Lisa, in the 19th century, had an almost sacred quality. Art devotees could only travel to the Louvre to see it. There were not coffee cups with the Mona Lisa on it. No souvenirs or postcards in the Louvre gift shop with the Mona Lisa on it. No quick Google searches to glance at it.

Now, fast forward to 20th Century France. The Mona Lisa is everywhere and anywhere. And who really actually goes to the Louvre anymore to see it? My own interaction with the real Mona Lisa took about 3 seconds, and it was mostly just to say I had done it.

As Walt Disney gets older, his works are growing increasingly alienated from the wonder and awe he inspired in those of his generation. In many ways, Disney is more concerned in the reproduction of an idea than in its original form. For example, when we first meet Roy (Frank Wood) and Walt they are busy making a nature documentary about lemmings who supposedly suicidally jump off a cliff every year as part of their life cycle. When they discover that lemmings don’t actually do that, however, they launch the lemmings right off the darn cliff themselves. Later on, while building FrontierLand, Roy buys land from a local farmer on the condition that a generations-old tree remains on the property. Walt, however, first relocates the tree, then fills the tree with cement. Then replaces the leaves with fake ones. Good enough, right?  We see this alienation from original ideas in Walt’s private life as well. He is overwhelmingly distressed by the fact that his daughter refuses to name his unborn grandson after him. He is likewise concerned about the reproduction of his legacy in his final cryogenic freezing of his head. (JUST the head! It can get a new body later) A head is the center of ideas, of genius, of impulse. But is it any longer so once placed on a new and ‘improved’ body?

By the end of the play, we’ve realized that not only has Walt alienated himself from any authentic relationship with his family, he has also alienated himself from the authenticity of his work. And what better way to show this complete, authoritarian disconnect from the nature of love, art, and happiness than to set the play in a corporate boardroom? Good times.

Under the Radar: LIFE AND TIMES

We round off our UTR coverage with the most unique and most ambitious play of the the 2013 lineup: Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times Marathon, a ten-hour play comprised of four episodes taken verbatim from one director’s phone call conversation with a cast member to recount her life story. And yes, it starts with day one.

Oh Dear Lord, these tracksuits.

Sara

Life and Times is truly a celebration of the everyday, mundane life. The first energetic, musical episode retracing the subject’s first 6 (ish) years of life, is just simply exuberant. It rejoices in the trivial details and reminiscences of childhood, whether it be the calming energy of a father, the tauntings of a brother, playing hooky from swim lessons, or a mean substitute teacher who causes one to wet one’s pants. What is it about one person’s personal, small experiences, which may seem so unimportant or too subjective to be inconsequential, that makes everyone suddenly moved to connect and remember their own memories, even if they are vastly different from those of the subject? It doesn’t make sense. But it happens in Life and Times. Never do you resentfully wish that someone with a more interesting life was interviewed, some kind of celebrity or something. Interesting is not at stake here. Neither is celebrity. We’re here to see the greatness, the adventure, in the everyday.

When we say verbatim, we mean verbatim. Every “um,” “erm,” “so,” “like,” etc. is reproduced, even emphasized at times. Sometimes an “um” is given its own note, harmony, and crescendo. It’s all part of the poetry of our subject’s (and our own) speech. It’s fantastic. I love my “ums” and “likes” now! In many ways, the marathon is also a case study in theatrical adaptation and conventions. I’d like to hear if some people felt like there were two voices in the piece- that of the woman on the phone generously telling her life story (imagined in our heads from reading the captions) and that of the artists. For me, the woman on the phone speaks quickly, nervously, a distance of years between her and her memories. The artists speak immediately, affectionately, deliberately, and slowly. The difference between the two illuminates what we do when do make a narrative out of someone’s real-life experiences.

I also endorse captioned performances like those in Life and Times for EVERY SHOW EVER becauseimnotagoodlistener

Episodes 1 and 2 are balanced in their joy and sincerity, striking a genuine chord with the audience. Episodes 3 and 4, on the other hand, are much messier (starkly different from the careful musical performances of 1 and 2). It feels a lot less fluid, a lot less reflective, and a lot more tedious. Yes, the “murder mystery” Agatha Christie-style shtick is fun and lends itself well to the subject’s more confessional teenage years. But the same plodding mood, the same melodramatic parodies for 2 and a half hours? Perhaps throw in some more genre-benders for 3 & 4, you know, instead of waiting for 5 and 6? Maybe some farce, some social manners, some Arthur Miller, some Harold Pinter, some Sam Beckett? You’ve got all of theater history to choose from.

Also, I hate to say this, but just because we’re taking the subject’s conversation verbatim doesn’t mean we must include ALL of it, or even do it chronologically. I could not wait to hear our subject’s memories on some more mature experiences-her first heartbreak, her first interview, maybe even her work as an artist. Alas, episode 4 ends at age 18.  Word on the street is that Nature Theater plans to make over a dozen episodes to bring forth all the pieces of their subject’s memories. Because editing is nowhere to be found on their mission statement.

Episodes 3 and 4. Where’s Poirot when you need him?

Kate

So um Life and Times attempts to capture the idiosyncrasies of, like, human speech… and turn oral storytelling into, um, a theatrical event.And it’s brilliant. UTR’s plays experiment with the idea of what theatre is and can be. This production is one of the main events of the Under the Radar Festival, and for good reason. Life and Times is huge both in length and in concept. The four episodes of Life and Times currently span about ten hours as a marathon (with more to come). And it’s mission to relate a telephone conversation to the audience–verbatim–is no easy task. The crafting of dialogue in the theatre is a language of its own. It has to establish the dramatic conflict  and drive the story.

At first, Life and Times doesn’t seem to have any narrative arc, as the novelty of the “real speech” takes time getting used to. The cast doesn’t shy away from the inconsistent vulgarities of human speech–they revel in them. But in those “mistakes” come brilliance. The hesitation before an embarrassing childhood memory. The nervous laughter hiding the fear of an abusive father. The unexpected interruptions where she wonders–and we all wonder–if our stories are actually worth being told.The constant musicality of Episodes 1 and 2 were welcome, as they help give the narrative an emotional life. I was also taken with the “anti-choreography” of awkward limbs and grace-less plies that illustrated everything from solitude to sexual desire. Episodes 3 and 4 can use more development, as the English cozy mystery genre sometimes muted the actors’ performances.

Life and Times was my first experience with marathon theatre, and it was a fun one. The intermissions were accompanied by a dinner and dessert break (featuring awesome salted brownies). It made me think of the possibilities of theatre being an all-day event, where the audience could respond even more to the stories brought to them. I also wondered if the company members could utilize those intermissions in a more creative way, particularly with the ensemble members. Even after almost half-a-day of Life and Times, I still wanted more, and I look forward to future episodes, wacky genres, and “ums.”

To be continued…

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