“Marie Antoinette,” David Adjmi’s contemporary take on the “Let them eat cake” beheaded French queen, seems a baffling choice for the latest Zoom reading on Play-PerView. When Marin Ireland first starred in the play in 2012, in a production at Yale Rep, a critic deemed it “generally more rewarding to look at than to listen to.”
Now there is very little to look at – no elaborate costumes, no clever scenery, no wigs “so high they had to raise the roofs of carriages,” as Marie tells us in the play (but we don’t see.)
The Play-PerView version, on demand through August 9, is billed as a reunion reading of Soho Rep’s 2013 version of the play, which was itself billed as “stripped down.” But even that production had costumes and a set and performers you could see from head to toe.
What we’re left with in this latest “Marie Antoinette” may not be stunning, but it has a cast worth watching, even from the neck up, and a script that both fills us in on some tantalizing historical details, and occasionally alludes in clever ways to life in the 21st century.
This Marie, for example, does say “oh, let them eat cake,” but she says it in response to a lady of the court recounting to the queen that she makes her kids eat healthy food, rather than junk food.
Seven of the ten cast members were in the Soho Rep production — which, like the production at Yale and the current Zoom reading, was directed by Rebecca Taichman, Tony-winner for “Indecent.” The three current cast members who most stand out performed in all three productions: Marin Ireland as Marie, Steven Rattazzi as her child-like husband King Louis XVI, and David Greenspan as…a sheep.
The playwright gives Marie Antoinette the most notes to play, and Ireland is a maestro, her main instrument one of the most expressive faces in the business. She can sound like one of those spoiled rich girls who play rebel on their Instagram accounts (“There are so many f— rules, I can’t take it.”) But she is also a naif who still pines for the Austria she was forced to leave for France at the age of 14, and still quotes her beloved childhood governess as if still under her care. When she becomes the victim of vicious false rumors – that she was a prostitute, that she’s written an autobiography confessing her many sins – she sounds a sardonic note, which subtly signals a growing maturity. And when the revolutionaries take over, and imprison her, she becomes alternately more self-reflective, more delusional (that’s where the sheep comes in) and more politically engaged (ditto), sounding notes that resonate in our frightening era.
“Perhaps I should’ve treated my subjects with greater consideration I’ve tried to amend that,” she tells the sheep. “But common people can’t take care of themselves, they can’t make decisions, they aren’t sovereign.”
Later, a revolutionary (Will Pullen), who is watching guard over her, spits out his contempt. “You act like everything’s hurt you. And everyone’s used you. And you’re just some sweet sunburnt girl at the beach. You won’t look at reality.”
“Reality,” she replies. “The reality is you can’t have a nation without a king.”
“What about America?”
“America! I’m so sick of hearing about America. America is a doomed experiment.”