Update: Because of popular demand, the Stages production of Marie Antoinette has been extended to November 9.
The ill-fated queen of France (Emily Neves) sashays down the halls of Versailles to a heavy techno beat. Gigantic neon fleurs-de-lis flash blindingly. Looking as tasty and pastel as any of those luscious macarons piled into a decorous pyramid on the acrylic table, she could be a classy runway model: cool, vacant and relishing the ego kick that comes when everybody is looking at you, just you. Then she opens her mouth. Out pours pure Valley Girl.
In David Adjmi's contempo take, Marie Antoinette (2012), France's most notorious and misunderstood queen is the original material girl. Pampered, spoiled, rich beyond imagining, this vacuous celebrity has everything. She's not a 1 percenter, she's a .001 percenter. Always on display, "built to be queen," silly Marie is leader of the pack. But in one of history's most vicious pranks, this teen queen is too stupid to realize how the world sees her. First idolized, then detested, scrutinized at court with a gaze that could sear flesh, and later mercilessly mocked by the public, Adjmi's Marie whines her way through her short life and this play's two acts. She never "gets it," not even when this surfer girl gets slammed by the tumultuous tsunami of the revolution.
Portraying Marie as ditsy blond, totally out of it but just a girl who wants to have fun, isn't the freshest of notions. Sophia Coppola's sumptuous 2006 film version with Kirsten Dunst trod the same path, only with more macarons and a pop-song soundtrack, but it, too, stayed close to the surface. In chronological order, Adjmi treats Marie's bio as graphic novel or the shortest of Cliffs Notes. The exposition arrives in breezy chunks of snarky dialogue, comic situations, and distinctive, revealing touches.
We meet her girl friends, the duchess of Polignac (Robin LeMon) and the princesss of Lamballe (Kelley Peters), as they dish the latest gossip while munching on pastries and chocolates. Dolled up to the nines by costumer Barry Doss and bewigged by master Amanda Mitchell with ships and cathedrals perched in their hairdos (her pouf creations would have been le dernier cri at the Petit Trianon), they tentatively discuss Marie's slipping reputation as well as the deteriorating situation in France. "These rumors hurt my head," Marie says airily. Polignac considers putting her kids on a diet to wean them off sweets, but Marie merrily chides her to "let them eat cake." Slyly dropped without its louche reference to the starving populace, Marie's most infamous retort gets a decisive laugh. It's quite fresh when so completely out of context.
The first act is fresh indeed, a rushing who's who of court intrigue, sweet and sour memories of her princess girlhood in Vienna, and dollops of history on the march. Marie has a dalliance with handsome Swedish count Axel Fersen (David Matranga), who idolizes her as an "exotic butterfly with opalescent wings." Marie's prescient enough to know that butterflies get pressed between sheets of glass or pinned into a frame, but the next instant she's snapping her fingers in defiance of convention, dropping her corset's confining whalebones and shaking her panniers with sensual abandon.
Her marriage woes with backward teenager Louis (Mitchell Greco), soon to be Louis XVI, are sharply conveyed when he enters rolling his American Flyer wagon stuffed with clocks, his passion. He's as petulant and spoiled as Marie, but he's stuck in boyhood limbo, unprepared for royal duties or those in the bedroom. To save the dynasty and everyone's reputation -- the people blame her for lack of an heir -- Marie's disapproving brother Joseph, Emperor of Austria (Shawn Hamilton), lectures the innocents and convinces the childlike husband to get the operation that will revive his sagging interest.
Marie delights in nature, a place to be herself without any prying eyes. But she's no more comfortable acting like a shepherdess than she is acting a queen. At her faux little hamlet built on the grounds of Versailles with its cottages, mill, dairy, and perfumed sheep and cattle, she's just as lost. In the play's most satisfying scene, little sheep are rolled around, along with a larger one, handled on the side by actor Luis Galindo. He nuzzles up to her, grazes on her skirt, then talks. It's odd, surreal, comic and just right. He bluntly warns her of the coming storm. "The people are very angry," says this ovine Cassandra, "step carefully." Smarting from the sexual libels spreading through Paris, Marie tosses away his premonitions with insouciance. She's a good dancer; she knows how to step nimbly. "They credit me with virtuosity," she boasts.
When the revolution comes, it comes with a thunderous coup de théâtre as the white floor is ripped apart, the neon goes out, chairs are overthrown, all overlaid with the hellish sound of mobs and panic. Scruffy Revolutionist (Benjamin McLaughlin) marches ominously toward us, holding out his scrolled piece of paper as it tears away from the background -- an endless petition of grievances.
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Act II is less fulfilling. Adjmi turns stuffy polemicist to air his views on democracy and the rights of man. The ancient regime may be dead, but what comes after is no better. Power will still belong to the few at the top. Marie continues her rant of being misunderstood. Even as her veneer of opulence is stripped away, she remains unrepentant. She still thinks she's queen. In a telling sequence, her corset is roughly undone. The soldier stands behind her. As if sapped of strength, she's buffeted by the treatment. The unlacing sounds like the lashes of whips. Marie's final years were ripe with incident, but Adjmi flies through them. Alone in the Conciergerie prison, her family dead or forcibly removed, she goes mad. It's neither convincing nor accurate, although Neves makes this moment shine brighter than it should.
Smartly directed by Leslie Swackhamer, Adjmi's contemporary look has the moves of a fine music video. Stages' starkly abstract production is ravishing to behold: those opulent fashions, scenic designer Ryan McGettigan's wondrous neon installation, Devlin Browning's searing lighting, Bryan Ealey's superlative sound work. As disco queen deluxe, Neves is radiantly charming and bubbleheaded, continuously finding new ways to show how unmoored from reality she is becoming. Clueless and tossed about by the winds of history, she sets her ship of state on a pursuit of pleasure. Her steely determination, her innocent obtuseness keep her afloat, but she cannot escape the curse of celebrity. Maybe a new dress will help.
Bewildered by her fate, unable to make the right choices, Marie faces her lethal comeuppance. In soiled chemise and her now-white hair hacked off, she has a final realization. "It's like some awful dream and it's never been mine." She stands on the red carpet, rolled out toward the dark shape of the guillotine. But she gets the final ironic laugh. She will be remembered. The whoosh of the guillotine reverberates. The dark silhouette opens to reveal a dressmaker's mirror. Her image reflects in triplicate. Whatever else, she'll always be famous, forever looked at. With fascination, awe and a bit of sadness, we will always stare at Marie Antoinette.