Marie Antoinette: Well done and irrelevant

An ingenious and beautifully produced pageant that has no contemporary pertinence.

click to enlarge Lucas Wells as King Louis XVI and Megan Rippey as Marie Antoinette. - Thee Photo Ninja
Thee Photo Ninja
Lucas Wells as King Louis XVI and Megan Rippey as Marie Antoinette.

On the one hand, freeFall Theatre’s Marie Antoinette is a smart and sharply produced look at the fall of a controversial queen at the time of the French Revolution; on the other hand, I can’t figure out the play’s relevance to a contemporary audience. Contrary to the promotional material I’ve seen, this is not really a play about celebrity and its detractors, and as for parallels with the Trump nightmare, I’m not aware of any claims that our president’s personal spending is bankrupting the Treasury or that he’s providing sexual services to the Coast Guard. So while the script is clever, the acting is top-notch, and the costuming is superb, I spent most of the play’s two acts wondering why I was watching it at all. Only when it turned surreal, with the appearance of a talking sheep played by the delightful Matthew McGee, did I sit up and take notice: Here was a theatrical idea, something daring besides strict biography. But by late in the second act, even the sheep was losing its mystery, and the play was back to being an ingenious but hardly self-justifying chronicle of the titular character's decline. Why Marie Antoinette, I wanted to know. Why not Catherine de Medici or Ulysses S. Grant or Margaret Sanger? Aren’t there historical pageants out there that have something to say to us now?

Still, the play entertainingly brings us the highlights of Marie’s collapse, starting in the 1770s and ending with her beheading. Utilizing dialogue that’s often amusingly contemporary, author David Adjmi presents us with a quarrelsome, petulant figure for whom the impoverished people of France naturally have little patience. While she spends money profligately and arranges for costly pageants in which she can masquerade as a lovely peasant girl, the populace, not so surprisingly, writes pamphlets attacking her spending, her sex life and her loyalty to her native Austria. We’re alerted to the possibility that her husband Louis XVI can’t produce an heir because he needs surgery on his genitals; we’re introduced to the suggestion of Marie’s affair with a Swedish diplomat; and we’re permitted to dwell briefly on her mother and her brother. Once the revolution begins, we’re offered scenes emphasizing her lack of understanding, leading to her failure to escape in the famous flight to Varennes. We meet some resentful revolutionaries. We’re with Marie just before she loses her head.

And relevant or not, the freeFall production is first class. Megan Therese Rippey plays Marie as a brat and complainer who’s doing her best under circumstances that would try any queen’s patience. Married at 14 to a feckless royal whose main joy is disassembling clocks, pressured to have children when it’s not her fault she’s not producing, this is a daringly unsympathetic performance, and it works well. Rippey is particularly good at showing Marie's total misunderstanding of the revolution. Honestly believing in the divine right of queens, seeing herself as more sinned-against than sinning, she goes to her death with not an inkling of her posh significance in a society that’s literally starving. She even wears a blouse early on in the play (costumes by David Covach) that says “Keep Calm and Eat Cake.”

Excellent too is Lucas Wells as Louis XVI, a childish, introverted nonentity who, if he weren’t king, would hardly be taken seriously by anyone. Wells’s Louis reminds us of Figaro’s complaint about an aristocrat in Beaumarchais’s great Marriage of Figaro: all he’s ever really done to achieve his dominance is “go to the trouble of being born.” Haulston Mann plays Marie’s possible lover, the diplomat Fersen, as a quietly macho type, and Stephan Jones is particularly menacing as a revolutionary and, in other scenes, as Marie’s brother Joseph. Heather Baird and Ariel Reich are fine in multiple roles, and Will Garrabrant is appropriately pathetic as Marie’s doomed son (Louis gets the operation). Eric Davis’ direction is top-drawer, and Covach’s costumes, some according to historical period, others deliberately modern, are witty and evocative. Davis’ set is mostly a bare runway stage on which various furnishings are brought on and off. Two of the best features of the production are the large screens on which projected titles and montages help us contextualize the onstage action.

But why this play at this time? Where’s the urgency? Where’s the necessity?

Or am I wrong to desire plays — no matter their subjects — that speak to our own historical moment?   

Mark E. Leib's theater criticism for CL has won seven awards for excellence from the Society for Professional Journalists. His own plays have been produced Off-Broadway and in Chicago, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and the Tampa Bay Area. He is a Continuing Instructor at USF, and has an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he won the CBS Foundation Prize in Playwriting. Contact him here.