(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Marie Antoinette is frequently used as a historical punch line, the ultimate example of decadence taken too far.
David Adjimi’s play, Marie Antoinette, takes this cliché as its starting point, before moving on to deconstruct Marie’s story in a thoroughly modern and theatrical way.
Capital T Theatre’s production of Marie Antoinette, running through March 20 at the Off Center, executes Adjmi’s text with precision, elegance, and wit, all anchored by a powerhouse lead actress.
As the titular queen, Indigo Rael’s performance is what makes Marie Antoinette sparkle. Over the course of 90 minutes, we watch her transform from a self-obsessed mean girl, to a desperate schemer, and finally a figure of pity; no small feat for an actress who is never off stage for that entire time.
Adjmi’s take on the French queen, rooted in contemporary language and sensibilities, portrays a vapid socialite who only too late gains awareness of the socio-political reality surrounding her (surely a message that resonates in today’s political landscape).
Director Rosalind Faires’ portrayal of this material is spare yet sumptuous, creating a sense of elegance out of simple fabrics, bare trappings, and evocative clothing (devised by scenic designer Leslie Turner and costume designer Talena Martinez). The show transitions from scene to scene through the use of title cards, reminiscent of silent films, and through the careful placement and removal of necessary furniture and props from cast members who hit their mark with an almost prescient precision and an economy of movement.
As the show progresses we see Antoinette’s fall from grace, alongside that of her husband, Louis XVI (played with a delightful, child-like sense of both entitlement and confusion by Nicholas Mills).
The production reflects these changes in her life and station, particularly through the slow-but-sure closing in of the lights (with gorgeous design by Patrick Anthony) upon Marie, forming a metaphorical – and ultimately literal – cell around her. This is accompanied by the changes in Marie’s mental state, revealing more and more layers to her personality until what had seemed like a stock character from a high school movie becomes a true figure of tragic pity.
That is not to say that Marie Antoinette is without its flaws.
At times the text tries to have its cake and eat it too, with political discussions about the virtues of democracy versus monarchy that, though interesting, detract from the very emotional story that is the heart of the play.
With the exception of Marie and Louis, various other characters are paraded on and off stage with such rapidity that we barely get to see a glimpse of intriguing personalities portrayed by dynamic performers. The play also introduces a touch of surrealism, in the form of a talking sheep, which – though providing the opportunity for some gorgeous puppetry by Matt Frazier – doesn’t entirely pay off.
Despite these problems, though, Capital T Theatre’s production of Marie Antoinette is equal parts enjoyable, emotional, and thought provoking, raising the question (one that is sadly contemporary) of just when the guillotine will fall upon a society that has grown overly decadent for the elite at the expense of the poorest.
As we see ourselves in Marie, we are reminded of the uncomfortable question of just whose head is on the chopping block.
"Marie Antoinette" continues through March 20. capitalt.org