Credit: Pavel Antonov

Credit: Pavel Antonov

BY MARGRET ECHEVERRIA

 

It is a dangerous endeavor to present a dramatization of history to a New York City audience that will surely be comprised of intellects and cynics – especially when the history presented is somewhat familiar and a frequently favorite story among dramatic storytellers.   What a thrill it was to be in the presence of a genius collaboration of writer, director and cast and witness this production which deftly surmounts all risk and draws one in from its very first moment.

Marie Antoinette is often sold as a vapid creature incapable of preventing her eventual slaughter.  Breaking from traditional interpretation, David Adjmi writes a character that is hilarious, multi-layered, relatable and ultimately heartbreaking.  The show begins with a juxtaposition of dialogue delivered at breakneck speed and dazzling energy which serves to magnify the prison of boredom and futility that is court life in Louis XVI’s Versailles.   Marie Antoinette is surrounded by “friends” and luxury.  The friends are colorful lenses focused by the clever direction of Rebecca Taichman on our heroine.   The life of luxury is represented by tantalizing stagecraft that seduces but does not cure loneliness.  Equally creative choreography, light direction and sound design are also sources of utter delight.

It would have been so easy for the style choices to dominate this production and cause it to become very presentational.  The characters speak in a modern vernacular.  There is a talking animal.  Marie Antoinette (Marin Ireland) speaks an impossible volume of words loaded with humor.  Scene transitions literally bring characters dancing upon the stage.  The costume choices are drole modern suggestions of the 18th century lovingly selected by Anka Lupes.  The urge to giggle can barely be suppressed in the first scene which is artfully humorous and thoroughly entertains.  But Ireland tugs at your heart soon enough and the realization comes that laughter is present only because it is too late to cry.  The urge to laugh is coupled by an urge to protect these characters from their known horrible fate.    Disbelief suspends and investment instantly becomes significant.

Louis XVI (Steven Ratazzi) is a totally believable heart-wrenching bumbling husband.  The character is brilliantly executed (pardon the pun) and instantly lovable.  It is no easy feat to establish a relationship from a scene’s get-go, but these two actors, Ratazzi and Ireland, do it flawlessly.  Their skills take full advantage of Adjmi’s writing of this exposition scene, which is utterly fluid and playful.  The frustrating insanity of the famous marriage is spilled out over the stage evoking irrepressible laughter and profound empathy.

Although our attention is very much on the title character, the supporting cast demonstrates talent in abundance.  Aimée Laurence, the ill-fated innocent Dauphin, is a Meisner dream.  A child actor can so often deliver an affected performance that startles a viewer out of a scene, but this novice, though small in stature, is polished and firmly planted in his assigned identity.  David Greenspan, Sheep – who speaks, no less! – pulls off the stylish choreography of Sam Pinkelton beautifully and is a perfect insipid demon in sheep’s clothing and French pastry-wrapped feet.

The punch of this story is packed by the painting of Marie Antoinette’s confidants.  Axel Fersen (Chris Stack) takes lines that are all love and lust and subtly twists them around a block of ice leaving us breathless.  Joseph (Karl Miller) could have been a simple, loving character, but instead creates a palpable tension on the stage with Marie Antoinette.  He, like Ireland’s character, is a sad manifestation of the wishes of others.  Therese de Lamballe (Jennifer Ikeda) is written as someone so selfish, but her struggle for ultimate survival is made understandable in its masked ugliness.  Yolande de Polignac (Marsha Stephanie Blake) is stunningly beautiful and commands attention without saying a word through impeccable comic timing.  Blake’s performance is nicely layered, leading to the belief that Polignac’s friendship is steadfast, but we soon see that her affection has limits.   Taichman’s direction shatters with the realization that those Marie Antoinette loved and trusted were ultimately unworthy of it.  The illustration of the sad disappointment of the relationships in her life could have been saved by a less talented director only for the moment between Ireland and Ratazzi when the queen tells her king she does not love him, but instead that moment cuts so much more deeply because we are led to it by such subtle yet complex character developments that teach us that love, for a monarch, comes at a price that cannot always be paid to every stakeholder.

Even the Revolutionary (Will Pullen) who tortures and captures Marie Antoinette is multi-faceted.  He struggles to de-humanize her so that he can send her to her death, but her intelligence, despite its simple packaging, makes a visible impression upon him.  He is moved almost away from his resolve and then imprisons her once again by retaliating with biting words that lock up her mind and eventually drive her mad.  This performance was a tall order well-served by an actor with few lines, short scenes and minimal allowances for physical violence.

The sound design of this production deserves great applause.  The simple, yet gratifying, sets by Riccardo Hernandez were complimented by precise sound effects that placed fear and uncertainty squarely in the room which, of course, gave a devastating magnified reflection of the lonely, painful and inescapable existence of Marie Antoinette.  Lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge was meticulous and transformative with the mastery of a magician.

This production is a triumph and its characters will linger much as the title character’s existence continues to fascinate centuries after she lived.  Bring a friend and see this unique and wonderful production.

MARIE ANTOINETTE – By David Adjmi; directed by Rebecca Taichman; choreography by Sam Pinkleton; sets by Riccardo Hernandez;  costumes by Anka Lupes; lighting by Stephen Strawbridge; production stage manager, Amanda Spooner; technical director, Newell Kring; production manager, BD White. A Soho Repertory Theater production, presented by John Adrian Selzer in association with American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre. At the Soho Rep Theater, 46 Walker Street, Through November 24. (212) 941-8632 | [email protected] Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.