Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The story is well known to the most casual student of history. Adjmi introduces us to Marie as a teenage bride raised to be pampered, bejeweled, dressed in excessive splendor. She had no formal education and is completely ignorant of the struggles faced by the masses of people beyond her manicured hedges. Her vacuous mind fixates on fashion and gossip. She claims to love nature, but her idea of it is a picture-perfect fantasy. She has a farm built as a nature retreat, as authentic as a Disney faux storefront Main Street.
Marie's marriage to Louis XVI was a political alliance brokered by her mother, Empress Marie Theresa of Austria, and Louis' grandfather, the French King Louis XV. Love never entered the equation. Much of the first act deals with the issue of producing an heir, impeded by Louis's failure to consummate their marriage for six years, which prompts vicious and vulgar rumors about the Queen. Marie is vaguely aware of discontent among her subjects, but treats it as background noise, surely nothing to be taken seriously. After all, aren't the people always discontent? When the revolution comes, Marie is shocked anew with each escalating wave of violence that strips away more of her property and privilege, as if the laws of nature forbid any further descent from her rarified existence. She loses her jewels, her clothes, her husband, her child (eventually she did produce an heir), even her hair, as the playwright brings us to the point where she has nothing left to lose but life itself.
Back to that comical first scene. Marie and two ladies in waiting appear in ridiculously ornate gowns with panniers that make them look five feet wide. Their pastel hair is piled several feet high and spun like cotton candy. Marge Simpson and her sisters came to mind. Their conversation is humorously tortured as the ladies draw upon their wits to avoid offending the self-absorbed and shallow queen. For instance, when Marie reveals that she no longer wears corsets, as the whale-bone stays constricted her, one of the ladies, struggling to respond, comes up with "I feel sorry for the whales." This garners a hearty laugh from the audience but, really, what could she have said? The first scene between Marie and Louis also feels like parody, given Louis's infantilism and Marie's scorn. Even as Marie's lifeand the playdescend into turmoil, comical incidents pop up. For example, when they attempt a desperate escape disguised as farmers, a comic twist about a windmill is used to seal the royal family's fate. At times the changes in tone feel jarring, as if the playwright was torn between his comedy Marie Antoinette and his tragic history bearing the same title.
Aside from the shifts in tone, there is another big problem in this play. Adjmi gives Marie a kind of mystical talisman in the form of a sheep. Early on she sees a sheep prance through the palace. In a later scene the sheep returns and is inappropriately affectionate toward Marie before delivering a message of warning to her. Still later, with Marie nears the end of her days, the sheep appears in a dream, but this time it is a disguise, for under the sheepskin is a vicious wolf. This sheep business fails to add an ounce of meaning to the play. It is confusing, distracting, and feels rather precious.
Director John Heimbuch navigates the shifts between the dark and light visions as well as the play's split personality allows. By the end, though, there is no mistaking that he has led us into a swamp of heedless violence and destruction, seen through the tortured mind of its most infamous victim. He is more than assisted by Jane Froiland's monumental performance as Marie Antoinette. In the early scenes, she is convincingly vacuous, deluded by her simplistic and self-serving notions of how a queen is meant to live. She is a fiery combatant in her attacks on Louis' ineptitude as both king and husband. As the end draws near, she captures Marie's near madness, as she struggles to maintain a foothold on life and a shred of her dignity. Froiland is fast becoming one of our finest actresses, bringing a range of characters vividly to life. This may be her strongest performance yet.
By comparison, the other cast members have little to do. Zach Garcia handles the role of Louis XVI well, making him simpering enough to sympathize with Marie's frustration, yet also revealing his own tortured existence as king, a role he clearly is not cut out for, nor desires. David Beukema has a nice turn as Marie's brother Joseph, who offers a contrast as to how a monarch should comport himself. Teresa Mock and Suzie Juul are both amusing as ladies in waiting in the early scenes. Fourth grader Hal Weilandgruber does sturdy work as the young Dauphin, shielded from the Terror until the last moments.
The physical production is splendid. Kudos to costume designer Katherine B. Kohl and wig designer Robert A. Dunn, The play glitters with extravagant attire and wigs for both the men and the women in court. Annie Henly's set design is simple but very effective. White columns positioned in an arc across the stage create the illusion of Versailles; rotated and placed more closely together, they become gates confining the Royal Family at the Tuileries; brought tightly together they form a stark white wall framing Marie's final imprisonment. Michael Croswell's sound design is terrific, with sounds such as horse hoofs pulling a carriage, crows cawing, chains rattling, and ominous footsteps approaching helping to create a much larger canvas for the play. Paola Rodriguez' lighting helps to convey the shift in tone from the lighthearted garden scenes to the hellfire of revolution to the dread of the prison cell.
Marie Antoinette is a compelling character study of a woman subjected to forces of history for which she was totally unprepared. It offers a bravura performance by Jane Froiland and ingenious and eye-catching design work. But what did Adjmi have in mind by dramatizing this story? As Marie's life skids from affluenza to despair, she tries to win sympathy from her guards, insisting that from birth she was doomed to be nothing but a spoiled and isolated queen. Should her excesses be forgiven by virtue of her powerlessness to be otherwise? Is that the message Adjmi had in mind? For all the laughs and operatic emotions it contains, the play is unsatisfying. More than a monster or a victim, Marie Antoinette ends up seeming pathetic; in the end it is hard to care very much about her fate.
Marie Antoinette, a Walking Shadow Theatre Company production, continue through February 27, 2017 at the Red Eye Theater, 15 West 14th Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: advance sale - $22.00, $20.00 seniors; at the door: $26.00, $24.00 seniors; $15.00 students; $18.00 for MN Fringe button holders at select performances; $10.00 Economic Accessibility Tickets (advance sale only). Call 612-375-0300 or go to walkingshadowcompany.org.
Writer: David Adjmi; Director: John Heimbuch; Set Designer: Annie Henley; Costume Designer: Katherine B. Kohl; Wig Designer: Robert A. Dunn; Lighting Designer: Paola Rodriguez; Composer and Sound Designer: Michael Croswell; Props Designer: Sarah Salisbury; Video Designer: Tony Biele; Fight Choreographer: Meredith Kind; French Language Consultant: David Beukema; Dramaturgy Assistant: Amy Rummenie; Stage Manager: Chandler Jordan Hull; Production Manager: David Pisa; Assistant Director: Lauren Jauert; Assistant Stage Manager: Lisa Wasilowski.
Cast: Julia Alvarez (ensemble), Neal Beckman (Sheep), David Beukema (Joseph/Mr. Sauce/ Guard). Jane Froiland (Marie Antoinette), Suzie Juul (Yolande de Polignac/Mrs. Sauce), Zach Garcia (Louis XVI), Paul LaNave (Revolutionary 1, 2, & 3/Guard). Teresa Mock (Therese de Lamballe/Royalist), Anna Sutheim (ensemble), Derek "Duck" Washington (Axel Fersen), Hal Weilandgruber (The Dauphin).