In Marie Antoinette, now at American Repertory Theater, David Adjmi dispenses with the obvious jests right off the bat. "O let them eat cake," protests Marie (the spectacular Brooke Bloom), in response to a chum's insistence that her own children "eat healthy." It's just one indication of the playwright's capricious but ultimately insightful gloss on France's one-time First Lady, crisply directed by Rebecca Taichman.
The style, both textual and visual, is very much a centuries-spanning mashup. The opening scene sets the style incisively. Three airheads, their pouffed coifs so massive they're suspended by guy wires, gossip while snacking on sweetmeats. Indeed, all Marie ever seems to do, beyond nattering cluelessly, is change outfits, and costumer Gabriel Berry has given her doozies which somehow manage to combine modern party girl with eighteenth-century fashion plate.
The first act, encompassing the queen's agrarian theme park L'Hameau -- which a prison guard (Brian Wiles) later labels "bullshit pastoralism" -- is mostly fun and games. David Greenspan puppeteers a well-kempt, well-spoken, if perhaps over-amourous lifesize sheep. He'll reappear in the increasingly dark second act, to discuss Rousseau and La Rochefoucauld with the imprisoned – and increasingly unhinged – Marie.
Bloom, with her extravant physical expressivity, does indeed generate sympathy, but perhaps not enough to warrant the almost hagiographic denouement. It's the silly scenes one comes away savoring: for instance, Marie and the king (Steven Rattazzi, marvelously understated as a childish misfit ill suited to his station) and their son the Dauphin (Andrew Cekala) on the lam disguised as "peasants" in cartoonish, stereotypically French get-ups. Marie can't resist chatting up two real peasants (Fred Arsenault and Hannah Cabell), but given her irrepressible affectations, the jig is soon up.
The real turning point comes at the end of act one, and it's so stunning a stage picture, I wouldn't want to give it away. Abetted by a smart director and crack design team -- including Riccardo Hernandez, whose set design is an exercise in impactful minimalism -- Adjmi has crafted a confection that's all sugar on the surface, with harder-to-ingest messages concealed within.
Indeed, comparisons with today's have/have-not tussles are all but inevitable, and the play will leave you with a scrapbook of vivid images and some nagging reminders of revolutionary issues left unsettled to this day.