‘Marie Antoinette’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

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In Woolly Mammoth’s Marie Antoinette the doomed, dark-shades donning Queen of France enters with two ladies-in-waiting. She slips off her robe, revealing an oh-so-modern two-piece bathing suit. She steps into her miniature swimming pool—aka jacuzzi—while one of her ladies lies on the green carpet, sun reflector tanning her already glowing bronze skin. Then the Queen bends forward and snorts, as in a long line–not of succession–but of the rich man’s Aspirin or the poor man’s Pearl.

Kimberly Gilbert and Sarah Marshall in 'Marie Antoinette.' Photo by Stan Barouh.

Kimberly Gilbert and Sarah Marshall. Photo by Stan Barouh.

And we’re off, as Marie is off, on a 21st century journey as old as an 18th century gallivant through the halls of the Rich and Famous meet the grubby, dirty terror of the rabble-rousing Common Man.

Although this production of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette does not keep the concatenations vivid and vital and funny during a somewhat obtuse second act, the side-effects and Kimberly Gilbert’s stellar performance as Marie keep the audience alive and pondering: “Is this the world the Enlightenment has wrought?”

Yury Urnov directs this heady production of a script commissioned by the Yale Repertory Theatre. And it’s that “heady” part that seems to scatter the second act into chicanery by crypticism. If the intent of Act II was to humanize this Marie by stripping her down to her holocaust survivor-self, then in the end all we are left to ogle at is a world where there are no humans left to see.

None of that takes away from Gilbert’s portrayal of this 21st century Marie Antoinette. All celebrity, reality TV personality rolled into the ruling one percent, her Marie has no skills, no authority, no purpose other than to be the queen she was meant to be. We adore her not because we want to know her, or be her, but because she is such a curiosity to behold. Gilbert finds the sweet spot for her character, triangulating among Snooki, Paris Hilton, and Vanessa Redgrave (Playing for Time), and you might not ever imagine the results.

A supporting cast of eight highly skilled and talented actors accompany Marie in their dismantling of civilization.

Those ladies-in-waiting–Dawn Ursula tackles with authority the sultry yes-woman, Yolande de Polignac, and Sue Hin Song, the motherly Therese de Lamballe. Both offer Marie a shoulder to whine upon and an ear to fill with her realization that her life has no humanity to it.

Sue Jin Song, Kimberly Gilbert, and Dawn Ursula. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Sue Jin Song, Kimberly Gilbert, and Dawn Ursula. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Joe Isenberg brings to life Marie’s husband, the clock-tinkering King Louis XVI who, in the face of dissolution, keeps proclaiming, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” This farcical King of a husband even surpasses Marie in airheadedness.

Marie’s quasi-lover, i.e., her lover in kisses and flirtation only, is Bradley Foster Smith.  His Axel Fersen is all patience and understanding when it comes to his affair with Marie, even if he’s hot to get it on.

And then we have Gavin Lawrence as not only Marie’s Austrian brother Emperor Joseph but as a cleaver welding butcher-merchant who might inhabit anyone’s worst nightmare.

Representing the oppressed masses, the character of the Revolutionary and the Guard, is James Konicek. Dirty, slimy, and looking like he’d just love to run his tongue over Marie’s captured self, this revolutionary might possess the ideals of the revolution, but his depraved dehumanized soul is the polar parallel of Marie’s empty vessel. Both are seemingly meant for one another.

One of the oddest non-characters of the play is Sheep, played deadpan by Sarah Marshall. An inexplicable mix between soothsayer and street-philosopher, this Baa Baa initially offers warning to poor Marie, the Austrian princess trapped in a French decadence. Later on, she becomes the “somewhat” intellectual, who offers bits of possible wisdom about democracy and Rousseau. In the end, however, she’s just a dead sheep on a French countryside.

Finally, Cole Edelstein portrays The Dauphin and does a fine job crying out, “I’m hungry” and “I need to go to the bathroom” and “Why can’t I play in the garden?” before being whisked away by a jackal of a man to his certain fate.

Once again, Woolly’s production team has constructed a powerful scenography.  From the gaudy excesses of Act I to the trembling isolations of Act II you will be entertained by designer Misha Kachman’s sets, particularly as they are lit by Jen Schreiver.  And the costumes by Helen Huang only add affectation and nuance to each and every spectacle.

The expressionistic Marie Antoinette might not be firing on all its cylinders all the time, and it might get carried away with its aesthetic self on occasion, but if you’re hungering for a darkly comic, and deeply cynical feast on humankind both rich and poor, then Marie’s nightmarish avalanche of images is more than enough to satisfy your lust.

You’ll leave the theatre singing, “What’s a head if you’re not using it?  What’s a beheading after all? Everybody’s losing it! Why not do it once and for all.”

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one intermission.

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Marie Antoinette plays through October 12, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

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