CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For the first half of the American Repertory Theater’s “Marie Antoinette” it seems that the poor girl isn’t going to get much past the joke status she’s been for the past 250 years, complete with one-liners evoking “Let them eat cake” and beheadings in the royal family. Not that the jokes aren’t funny or the theatrics of the production entertaining. It just seems for the first half that the proceedings don’t amount to much more than eye candy, with glib writing and silliness passing for satire.
It turns out, though, that everyone’s just warming up, including writer David Adjmi, director Rebecca Taichman and pretty much the whole cast, led by Brooke Bloom in the title role. It still won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, particularly teadrinkers who have found the A.R.T. of the past to have delivered too abstract a brew.
Under Robert Brustein and Robert Woodruff, the A.R.T. was known (not exclusively) for visceral, non-naturalistic dreamscapes. Diane Paulus, the last few years, has certainly softened the aesthetic — longtime A.R.T. observers talk bemusedly about the upcoming “Pippin” — but “Marie Antoinette” is proof that the old aesthetic is still part of the new one.
This co-production with the Yale Repertory Theatre is one of the least representational productions on the Loeb Mainstage under Paulus’s aegis. The play opens with Marie and two of her attendants in neon dressing gowns and impossibly tall beehive wigs attached to wires. That and the subsequent dancing — excitingly choreographed in punk disco style (no, not a contradiction in terms) by Karole Armitage — unleash a torrent of visually dazzling tableaus orchestrated by director Rebecca Taichman and set designer Riccardo Hernandez. (The whole design team is in fine A.R.T. fettle.)
But what’s it all about, Marie? First of all, don’t ask her. Her vacuousness makes Paris Hilton look like Simone de Beauvoir. As Marie, Bloom stomps about with her right leg twitching, her delivery nouveau neurotic, her impatience with the latest piece of food or directive to cut back on spending unnerving her even more. It’s a performance that — like the production itself — starts out overly mannered and grows more entertaining and nuanced as the two-hour production gathers steam.
Adjmi also doesn’t make much of a case in the first half that he has much to say about the state of affairs then or now. Is she a stand-in for today’s one percent? If so, it’s a pretty shallow depiction of same. The France of “Marie Antoinette” seems more in line with an Arab Spring country like Libya, but not in any way that sheds light on matters.
Things get more serious in the second half and that’s all to the good. While she’s imprisoned she has discussions with a revolutionary, a former lover and a sheep — it’s a long story. It may well be, though, that David Greenspan plays the most soulful sheep in the history of theater as with a sweep of his hand and a soft warning he opens up a whole new world to Marie’s imagination.
These debates about equality and the poor might not be the headiest discussions about the rights of man or Rousseau, but they provide a framework for how to judge Marie and the revolution that ensued, and perhaps even our own attitudes toward democracy. Marie’s rich lover even conjures up a little bit of lefty political thought in lecturing Marie about how she and Louis should have allowed democracy — it’s an easy job convincing the poor that they should vote against their own self-interest anyway.
If Marie isn’t able to articulate her confusion about the times that will claim her head, Bloom does a sensational job of conveying that confusion. She’s a victim of all kinds of forces, but Bloom brings such humor and intelligence to the part that she’s as easy to like as a character in a film like “Bridesmaids.’’
In the end, “Marie Antoinette” makes all that eye candy pretty savory, even nutritious.
What’s on your iPod, Marie Antoinette?
(Music from the production)
- Arthur Sullivan, Cello Concerto in D, Allegro moderato
- Girl Talk (with Nicki Minaj and Ludacris), “Steady Shock” and “Triple Double”
- Rachel, “Honeysuckle Suite”
- Cher Lloyd, “Swagger Jagger”
- Overture to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Gondoliers”
- T. Griffin’s “Morning” from the “Children of Invention”
- Goldmund, “Shadow”
- Louis-Claude Daquin, “Le Coucou”
- The Rolling Stones, “Under My Thumb”
- Max Marino, “La Plus Bath Des Javas”
- Helios, “Bless This Morning Every Year”
- Talking Heads, “I Zimbra”
- Mountains, “Choral”