“Let them eat cake,” quips the eponymous character in the opening moments of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, now receiving its world premiere production at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven. Except here she’s talking about her galpal’s pastry-loving kids, not the starving people of pre-revolutionary France. In reality, the notoriously coiffed queen of France never uttered these words; that’s why it’s so cunning that Adjmi quickly diverts us from our preconceived notions of what an Antoinette-themed play should contain and steamrolls forward in grand fashion, giving us one of the sharpest new plays in recent memory.
As the play begins, Marie (Marin Ireland) is chattering in quasi-modern vernacular with her two best girlfriends, the three of them wearing impossibly high wigs (and when I say impossibly high I mean it). Munching on pastries delivered by servants who watch their every bite, there are subtle hints that all is not right. “I hear things,” says Marie, “but then I think maybe it’s all a canard,” comparing the rumors and pamphlets beginning to circulate about her to “dishes clattering and breaking everywhere you go.”
Soon, her worries will escalate to much more than a cups-and-saucers emergency, but for the time being Adjmi introduces us to Marie as the domestic butterfly she is, a monarch with expensive tastes who finds the penetrating gaze of her attendants stifling and longs to return to the pastoralism of her Austrian youth, even donning a sexy shepherdess costume on occasion to mingle with her flock of domesticated sheep, one of whom comes to anthropomorphic life as embodied (rather eerily) by New York downtown favorite David Greenspan.
The sheep, which spews forth from its mouth an ominously naughty limerick written on a scroll, foretells the winding road ahead, for the shepherdess who trusts her faithful flock too well is sure to find her woolly charges bearing wolves’ teeth.
Whereas director Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film treatment of Marie’s story focused mainly on the literal details of the court’s decadence and ended just as her decline was beginning, Adjmi’s subtly fantastical play carries us through her family’s demise in Paris. Marie’s strained marriage with King Louis XVI is also explored as in Coppola’s film; Adjmi writes, evocatively, “The night Louis and I were married there was a violent thunderstorm and they had to cancel the fireworks and it’s been like that ever since.” Similarly addressed is her affair with Axel Fersen, a Swedish count who was Marie’s lover and whose presence, in Adjmi’s play, continues to haunt her through to her death at the guillotine.
Being a stage play, the focus is more on the how and why than on exactly what happened — this is no dull bioplay. Midway through, as the first act comes to a close, a horrifying crash (the play’s sound design by Matt Hubbs is astonishingly good) gives way to a rain of dirt that covers the stage, signifying the palace’s ransacking; it’s a spectacular coup de theatre that makes it clear that from here on out everything about Marie’s life is in flux.
As portrayed by the consistently excellent Marin Ireland, Marie is as petulant and spoiled as Paris Hilton — but as she’s ultimately built up as a scapegoat for the revolutionaries’ resentments, we come to see her in a sympathetic, or at least empathetic light, as a product of her upbringing whose bred purpose was also her downfall. “I was built to be this thing,” she exclaims to her prison guard, “and now they’re killing me for it — but you’d be the same. You’d make the same choices I did.”
This dramatization is so effective because, though its depiction of Marie is sympathetic, she’s also brought low enough to endure some of the class-based arguments leveled against the monarchy — which are addressed especially well in a scene where one of the guards in her Parisian cell cuts her hair. “You act like everything’s hurt you and everyone’s used you,” he tells her angrily, snipping away, “and you’re just some sweet sunburnt girl at the beach.”
After her son is separated from her, as she’s nearing her final days, a vision comes to Marie of the same sheep who spoke to her back at Versailles. “Teach me,” she exclaims,” and the sheep proceeds to tell Marie of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Isaac Newton, arguing on behalf of reason as juxtaposed against Marie’s absolute monarchy. But it’s too late for her to learn anything more than sketches of wisdom — or for anything that she learns to truly change her. It’s in this exchange, which occasionally veers toward the didactic but is nonetheless effective, that we come to see how Marie and the monarchy have become above all else scapegoats (or scapesheep) for the radical new ideas Marie and her ineffectual husband have ignored since coming to power.
Director Rebecca Taichman, a master of stage images, does well by Marie’s encounters with the sheep — and many other of the play’s signpost moments. There’s a sense here that anything could happen — despite the fact that we know Marie’s fate — and that can be attributed to the imaginative touches of Taichman and her top-notch design crew, namely costume designer Gabriel Berry’s outlandishly appropriate dresses and wigs and Riccardo Hernandez’s decoratively patterned set, which mutates as it’s covered in dirt and opens up to reveal reflective surfaces and mounds of earth.
“I’m not responsible am I?” asks Marie of Fersen midway through the play. “No,” he replies. Can an illiterate, frivolous queen really be responsible for the discontent of her people? As I see it, this exchange comes as Adjmi’s dual-edged vindication of France’s most notorious queen and, ultimately, the play’s thesis. Her introspective question, aimed within the context of the scene toward the revolution that’s beginning to bubble over, could just as well reflect on the queen’s own doubts about her skills as a mother — or, more intrinsically, as a woman in the world. It’s because the play mines Marie Antoinette’s vulnerability so deeply and so imaginatively that it excites on so many levels; I challenge theatergoers to want to behead a queen that, in the hands of an actress as adept as Ireland, has not only made us chuckle at length but has perhaps even brought us close to tears.