In David Adjmi’s satirical Marie Antoinette, the titular royal doesn’t start using her head until she’s in danger of losing it. At first, without any desire to get a grip on reality, she’s presented broadly as a Real House Queen of Versailles. With valley-girl inflections and a grating mean-girl mien, the so-called Madame Deficit is only vaguely aware of the peasants’ rising anger and utterly clueless as to what to do: “The people aren’t happy. Or…I don’t know what they are. Maybe they are starving.” But she doesn’t follow through on this, or any, line of thought. Instead, she lets herself eat cake.
In a sly wink at the quote that’s poisoned her reputation for centuries, Marie (a formidable Marin Ireland) and her ladies-in-waiting (Jennifer Ikeda and Marsha Stephanie Blake) grab mouth-watering, brightly colored macaroons from towering mounds that stand beside them. When Ikeda’s Yolande, with her mouth full, admits she denies “junk food” like this to her children out of concern for their health, Ireland addle-pated monarch answers, “Aww, let them eat cake.” It’s an easy laugh, like many in the play’s early going, but Adjmi soon rewards audience members who’ve done their research by including a riff on the writer who actually coined the famous line, France’s literary lion Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Marie’s never heard of him: “Intellectuals, bleh. You know what I love? Mops!” She means the mop-topped poodles she keeps by the hundreds. Before we lose patience with the queen-as-ditz approach, Adjmi, Ireland, and director Rebecca Taichman direct our focus where the queen refuses to tread: on the life of her mind.
Marie’s damnable obliviousness to what might be best for children or the rest of her people proves pitiable when extended to herself. She can’t even commit to a macaroon, which she absentmindedly licks through the first scene. Ireland physicalizes the queen’s mental and spiritual emptiness with a slightly concave posture that renders her a human question mark. When a thought hits Ireland’s French queen, her head often rocks in response as if a firing brain synapse is akin to a surprise internal blast. Adjmi blames a lack of any formal education, rather than any innate stupidity, for rendering Marie incapable of reasoned thought: “I’m practically fucking illiterate.” Her parents, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, treated her as a chit in political gamesmanship. An early appearance by her brother, Emperor Joseph II (Karl Miller), brings this home, as he coldly takes her to task for not producing an heir, a failure that endangers their family’s interests.
Adjmi and Ireland show us that life for a girl in a plastic bubble makes her bobble-headed, hollow, and easily swayed. And that’s how the updated lingo and screechy sing-song speech patterns earn their place. They, like the contemporary soundtrack of Sofia Coppola’s own Marie Antoinette from 2006, connect the doomed queen to the Lohans, Kardashians, and today’s other gawked-at young things. All the design elements in Taichman’s stylish production, including Anka Lupes’s fabulous costumes, similarly combine elements of past and present.
Riccardo Hernandez’s stage design evokes a red carpet, with the audience sitting along the long end of the theater’s tiny rectangular room. The wall opposite, not many feet away, is painted white, where block letters, also in white, spell “MARIE ANTOINETTE” in relief. The wall also serves as a backdrop to Christopher Ash’s projected titles, which delineate time, place, and pertinent information. Marie herself sometimes stares at them, as if just another observer to the terrible tidal pull of her life:“Sometimes I feel like a game that other people play, but without me.” Before this can land as impressive self-knowledge, she admits to having no idea what she meant.
As the beat toward revolution grows louder (literally so in Hubbs’s sometimes ear-splitting but always impactful sound transitions), the play grows increasingly subjective, tied to a mindset that’s never developed beyond the narrow, empty space of childhood. Other people sweep in briefly to gain attention, but never seem quite real to her. The Swedish Count Axel Fersen (Chris Stack) may be the love of her life, but that’s one more thing she can’t figure out. Her husband, King Louis XVI (Steven Rattazzi), proves even more emotionally stunted, interested only in figuring out the inner working of clocks. He knows he needs to sire children for the good of the country, but takes too long to overcome infantile fears of a minor operation. By the time Joseph II convinces him to help Marie produce heirs, the people have already turned violent.
Marie’s survival instinct kicks in sporadically, spurring more incisive thoughts, but the danger also drives her to distraction, as marked by the appearance of an amorous, philosophical talking sheep (David Greenspan, in the production’s most stylized and only mannered performance). Once the revolutionaries, personified by Will Pullen, who sits as an audience member until it’s time for someone to take action, take her prisoner, Ireland astounds. Shorn of her wig, gown, and most of her senses, Marie’s increasingly desperate straits provide an obvious temptation for an actress to drop all the off-putting stridence and let the tears rip. But doing so would imply Marie had broken through to a graceful self-knowledge. Adjmi’s play and Ireland’s brave, bravura performance instead dig for more resonant tragedy in Marie’s ultimate inability to wake up, even when facing the guillotine: “It’s like some awful dream and it’s never been mine…my life.”
Like Evita, Marie Antoinette presents a female leader’s everlasting fame as possible recompense for her early demise. The name still sells, as proven by the eponymous title of the recent biography by Antonia Fraser, Coppola’s film, and now Adjmi’s affecting and erudite play. The latter may not be one for the history books, but it provides a strong platform for a writer and actress whose skills may yet prove them worthy of legend.
Marie Antoinette runs at the Soho Rep until November 24.