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A CurtainUp Review
From the first scene, Adjmi's Marie (Marin Ireland) seems acutely aware of the play's place in both history and artistic tradition (in a sly, winking moment, Marie utters the famous "Let them eat cake" line in an unexpected context). Likewise, as she chats flippantly with her friends about her failings and her woes, Marie seems almost preternaturally self-aware, a color commentator on her own storied life. "I know people think I'm very bad. One must't make too much of one's reputation," she tells Yolande de Polignac (Marsha Stephanie Blake). Playing the title role, Ireland even adopts a modern cadence of voice for this and some subsequent sections, acting like what she truly is — a Marie Antoinette imagined in the 21st century.
The action jumps nimbly through time and space with the help of simple projections. We're introduced to Antoinette's husband, King Louis XVI (a comically diminutive and demure Steven Rattazzi), who literally quakes with fear, and is powerless to control his dominant wife. We also meet the nobleman Axel Fersen (Chris Stack), who is here portrayed as an admirer and confidant if not exactly a lover as historically alleged. Marie grapples with increasingly powerful rumors about her sexuality, her inability to produce an heir, and a need to reign in her spending.
Meanwhile, a revolutionary spirit grips France and the pressure builds on the royal couple like an ever-tightening noose, rendered most viscerally by the frightening, crescendoing roar of protestors, courtesy of sound designer Matt Hubbs. The action lingers extra long here and ultimately loses momentum once Marie and family are captured by democratic rebels. The party, so to speak, is over and Marie is stripped of all her decorations.
Trapped and hopeless, Marie contemplates her culpability and legacy. "I was fourteen. I was shipped off to marry a rich French boy who couldn't even tuck his own shirt in, I was stripped of everything," she tells her captor. "I didn't know what else to be." While this scene is a palpable depiction of imprisonment, it lacks much of the imagination of the play's first act and its grinding pace may prove trying for audiences.
Marie's innocence, never quite argued for explicitly, is a theme of Adjmi's work. Fersen returns again and again to a notion of Marie as "a butterfly with opalescent wings," one which he'll catch and pin to his wall. It's an apt metaphor for Marie's fragility and adornment, as well as her entrapment. And in a surrealist turn, another metaphor for Marie emerges: a sheep (a whimsical David Greenspan, sometimes operating Matt Acheson's rather beautiful puppet), who periodically talks to Marie and becomes an uncertain ally in her imagination.
Narrating her gruesome end at the end of the play, Marie concludes, "I became the stuff of history, And they couldn't kill me. And when I awoke I thought: I have come into life now Forever." Wisely, Adjmi's play does not so much attempt to understand or complicate the character of Marie Antoinette as explore that character's timeless mystery. It's a mystery that seems bound to endure long after this play's run at Soho Rep ends, and indeed, to transcend any attempts to pin her down.