By Annette LePique, Collage by Rachel
Going to the theater has always been my respite from expected and unexpected bouts of sadness, in a sense a comforting ritual to take the place of long ago bedtime stories and night-lights. While some theaters are inaccessible due to price (I like to imagine that these places are frequented by old wealthy women who are frequently engulfed in fur, smoke cigarillos, never give any damns and have had secret liaisons with at least three oil barons), many possess affordable alternatives for students. To me these are places of memory making, ethereal auras, giddiness and glee.
I was ecstatic to attend Steppenwolf Theater’s premiere of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette. Directed by Robert O’Hara, with Alana Arenas in the starring role, Marie Antoinette chronicles the short life and death of the young French queen. However, Adjmi and O’Hara’s complex visions and Arenas’ stellar performance investigate much more than absolute historicism. The play delves into issues as diverse and intricate as modern celebrity, femininity, race, and girlhood.
Much of the action takes place below a ceiling composed of warmly luminescent papier-mâché floral forms. This area is then situated between two green screens that alternate between tightly framed images of sumptuous fabrics, food, jewelry and voyeuristic shots of palace facades. The element of voyeurism is crucial to consider because the green screen images that enable one to view an image of Versailles and the faint shadows of Marie and Louis living (the outlines of the actors) within this imagined space tinges the story with TMZ era schadenfreude. The audience’s pleasure and interest in viewing Marie’s struggles with the socio-political expectations linked to her role as Queen of France, while at the same time being aware of the French Revolution and Marie’s violent execution, brings to mind the lurid attraction fueling the industries of celebrity secrets and downfalls. While the modern prurient fascination with the private details of a celebrity’s personal life is not overtly politicized, it shares many elements with the continued appeal of Marie’s trajectory from Austrian girl to French monarch to a symbol and scapegoat of public hatred. Though the majority of these celebrity stories do not end with the same degree of violence as Marie’s death, they still engage a spectrum of tragedy. In a sense, we never tire of the stories that chronicle the inevitability of a fall after a rise.
The play’s most engaging moments were wordless and silent except for a bass heavy musical backdrop. These powerful sequences consisted of a silent Marie standing passively, close-mouthed and doll-like, as personal attendants poked and prodded her with elaborate hairpieces, gowns and other personal ornamentation. Beautiful clothes and jewelry served a multitude of functions for young Marie. Marie’s ornate wardrobe simultaneously engineered and cloaked her as an image and symbol much less and much more than the sum of her individual mental, physical and emotional parts. During one of these sequences I was distracted by the quiet chuckles of an elderly white couple as another intricate blonde hairpiece is placed atop Marie’s/Arenas’ head. Arenas is African American. The couple’s laughter is ignorant, in that they do not know the experience of being doubly bound by your gender and race.
Questions of girlhood are further complicated by questions of race and what it means to fulfill one’s pre-inscribed roles. For instance, director Robert O’Hara states “its not like you could pretend Marie Antoinette was remotely African American—it feels a bit off. But Marie was a bit off. She was a woman out of her land having to pretend to be something she was not.” O’Hara’s point is forceful and echoes the sentiment that the roles for which we are formed do not necessarily reflect our own wants, dreams or desires. At the age of fifteen, Marie was entered into a politically motivated marriage with the young Dauphin of France. She grew up in a strange land, surrounded by no comfort or love. Yet, like all of us, she gains awareness of how these outside forces shaped her and through this awareness, she rebels and continues to live as both an image of a luxurious queen and an imperfect young woman.