PURE Theatre’s 12th season closes out with playwright David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, which presents the doomed French queen speaking modern slang, a kind of royal Bravo housewife with an especially rich and powerful husband.
Director (and PURE Artistic Director) Sharon Graci sets a consistent pace and tone, and Adjmi has inarguably got a way with words — the setup results in plenty of laughs, especially when the royalty starts dropping F-bombs or argues about what, if anything, windmills might actually do. The conceit also leaves plenty of room for costume designers Janine Marie McCabe and Taylor-Ann Spencer to make an impact, as they clearly had plenty of fun with their pomo take on 18th century French high fashion. Overall, though, the play fails to connect on an emotional level, as Marie’s character is neither particularly sympathetic nor terribly interesting.
One gets the impression Adjmi’s original intent was to humanize Marie, portraying her as a product of her times and station, rather than just as a victim of her or Louis’ personal miscalculations or shortcomings. Unfortunately, what’s presented to the audience is a protagonist who, while clearly in over her well-coiffed head, doesn’t particularly cry out for sympathy or identification.
Actress Haydn Haring does an admirable job attempting to inject something like humanity into Marie, but it’s a tall order. Over the play’s two acts, which cover the time immediately before and through the revolution, we see Marie grow from a mostly-clueless airhead concerned with fashion and husband Louis XVI’s sexual dysfunction, to a still-mostly-clueless airhead who’s scared as hell because she’s going to die — except when she delivers a closing monologue that might be powerful, if only it didn’t convey a depth of character well beyond the Marie the audience has come to know.
There are brief references to her backstory, which has the potential to establish some sympathy for her —shipped off from Austria to marry a stranger at age 14, she was literally stripped bare and then remade in the image of a model French queen. But since this information is delivered in offhand lines here and there, it fails to coalesce into anything more than a vague understanding that her life hasn’t been altogether perfect. #QueenProblems, amirite?
Most of the rest of the cast plays multiple parts, and they all acquit themselves well. While it’s initially jarring to watch the Emperor of Austria moving furniture around, the actors all clearly differentiate their multiple characters, and watching them do so is part of the fun.
PURE core ensemble member Michael Smallwood plays King Louis XVI as a clueless, hobbyist king completely out of his depth in matters both political and domestic. Most at home tinkering with his clocks and watches, he’s a spoiled wimp representing the ineffectuality and top-heaviness of a monarchy that’s well past its sell-by date. While it’s hinted that Marie is probably his intellectual superior, and certain that she possesses a stronger will, Smallwood plays the part with good humor and a fair bit of charm.
Another highlight is Camille Lowman, who plays the role of a talking sheep that speaks only when Marie’s alone with her, and seems to represent some combination of the zeitgeist and Marie’s own subconscious. Lowman plays the sheep with a confident cool, and the dynamic between Marie and the sheep is probably the most interesting relationship in the play.
The production design is sparse but solid, and largely effective. As the scenes take place in various distinct locations, from Versailles to the countryside, too much specificity wasn’t an option. Servants serve as stagehands, elegantly moving the chairs and tables from one scene to the next. Between scenes, a sheet is often brought to center stage, upon which the year, location, or other important information, is projected. Overall, it works, and adds an interesting element of overt artificiality, which works in the larger context of intentional anachronism that Graci and her team highlight throughout the play.
Toward the end of the play, Haring’s Marie pleads for mercy, or at least understanding, from one of her captors. “I was born into it,” she says. “I was built to be this thing, and now they’re killing me for it. But you’d be the same. You’d make the same choices I did.” One imagines Adjmi intended for audiences to be pulling for her, to understand where she’s coming from, even if her guard doesn’t. (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t.) But she’s just pathetic, making a desperate last-ditch attempt to squeeze a bit of sympathy out of someone who’s suffered enough under her husband’s rule to take up arms against the monarchy.
Marie Antoinette isn’t one of PURE’s better productions, but it is worth seeing. There are some solid laughs, and the acting is professional and occasionally impressive. The costumes are a lot of fun, and the set design sets just the right tone. But by the time the theater fills with the sound of the guillotine blade falling, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the audience feeling much for Marie. She might simply be the inevitable product of her environment, as she claims, but the audience doesn’t know her well enough to care.