Chicago Theatre Review
Marie Antoinette – Steppenwolf Theatre
Everyone knows at least some trivia about the notorious French Queen, reputed to have flippantly responded to the needs of her starving people by saying, “Let them eat cake.” She lived her life as one continuous party, spent money like it grew on trees and doted on all things fashionable, finally bowing to popular pressure to achieve simplicity by dressing and pretending to live like a peasant farmer. David Adjmi has included all these historical gobbets within his bold, sassy, contemporary portrait of the deluded, 18th century monarch, portrayed here as a 21st century celebrity. The playwright has created a cartoon-like story relating the last days of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI that resembles more of an MTV music video than a History Channel documentary.
While visually and audibly entertaining, Mr. Adjmi’s play adds little to what antiquity has told us about this self-absorbed sovereign, except to make an obvious comparison with popular culture. Clint Ramos has created a glossy, mirror-polished runway of a stage setting that’s an obvious homage to fashion shows, which this play often resembles. Suspended above the stage are a potpourri of mobile, faded rose blossoms. Hanging at each end of the runway, with the audience seated on either side, are two giant plasma television screens on which Jeff Sugg’s poetic and picturesque projections appear. As a pre-show entertainment, the audience is even treated to an informative video that explains the creation of the Palace at Versailles. Lindsay Jones’ pulsating, electronic, techno-mix dance music provides a soundtrack while Japhy Weideman’s lighting design illuminates and colors all the proceedings. But the shining stars of this entire production are Dede M. Ayite’s magnificent costumes and Dave Bova’s towering hair pieces that take high fashion to another level.
As Marie Antoinette, Alana Arenas is the consummate spoiled brat. She pouts and preens about, smirking and striking an attitude for the audience, whining and complaining about the rigors of being a public figure. All the while this aggravating woman screams at her husband, her servants and even her son, the little Dauphin, played with spunk by Mark Page. The young prince, receiving the brunt of her anger and impatience, has at least learned how to take it and give it right back again. Ms. Arenas’ complete portrayal of the overindulged queen brings to mind the entitled, pampered characters in films such as “Clueless,” “Mean Girls” and the “Dreamgirls” divas. The playwright’s au courant dialogue is laced with profanity, jokes, snarky comments and popular psychology, but never does he probe the heart and soul of this woman.
The terrific, versatile actor Tim Hopper, so frightening in Steppenwolf’s “Russian Transport” and heartbreaking in their more recent production of “The Night Alive,” is a sad, spineless, befuddled King Louis XVI. His response to Marie’s quip that he acts like a child is because he never really ever had a childhood. Both Mr. Hopper and Ms. Arenas’ characters, however, do elicit a degree of sympathy as two monarchs in charge of a country, who were never really instructed how to rule. Alan Wilder is interesting as the queen’s bizarre confidant, a talking sheep who vainly attempts to advise Marie about her gluttony. Tim Frank makes a strong, but irritating Revolutionary Guard, Ariel Shafir is impressive in his Steppenwolf debut as the queen’s lover, Swedish nobleman Axel Fersen, and Keith D. Gallagher is strong, both as Joseph and the peasant Mr. Sauce. Tamberla Perry and Ericka Ratcliff nicely play Therese and Yolande, Marie’s consorts who, as ladies of the court, provide the queen with feigned companionship and support.
Robert O’Hara’s production is a spectacular treat for the eye and ear. It’s sumptuous and eye popping, featuring a set, costumes, wigs and a soundtrack that will be the talk of the town for years to come. Indeed, David Adjmi’s play could only be produced by a theatre company that sports a healthy budget. But a play that demands so much specialized technical artistry ought to at least have something unique to say about its subject. Alas, this play is primarily all flash, splash and not much panache. Except for reminding theatergoers of a smattering of facts from French history, there are very few lessons to be gleaned from this play.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 11-May 10 by Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.