When you first see her, she looks like Paris Hilton getting ready for a night on the town. But the woman in the poufy pink party dress, with her blonde hair in a tall beehive, isn't Paris Hilton. And the time certainly isn't the early 2000s. No, no. The year is 1776 and this woman is Marie Antoinette, the French Queen whose love of the excess was partially responsible for her decapitation by guillotine.
As embodied by Tony Award nominee Marin Ireland in a characteristically intelligent performance, Marie Antoinette, the subject of David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette under the direction of Rebecca Taichman at Soho Repertory Theatre, is an impetuous party girl prone to fits of screaming when she doesn't have her way. It's a fun, meaty role for any thirty-something actress and Ireland really gets under Marie's skin. If only the script did that too.
Adjmi's energy is focused on drawing contemporary parallels — namely, how easy it is for a human to become a train wreck. Swap out the delicious macarons and pretty spangles for booze and painkillers and Marie can be any number of Hollywood statistics who unknowingly lost their lives in a similar fashion. This is both the strongest point and the biggest downfall — concentrating on this particular track is actually remarkably illuminating, but it comes at the expense of the history.
The life and times of Marie Antoinette are written in shorthand; Adjmi has done his research, but it's presented in such a way that if you didn't know about her reign and/or demise going in, you wouldn't learn anything new (you would, however, have a firm grasp on her relationship with an imaginary sheep, ethereally played by David Greenspan). The bullet points are these: The Austrian Marie is married off to the diminutive and bumbling Louis XIV (Steven Rattazzi, who does said diminutive and bumbling well), she shops a lot, the French peasants are angry, they revolt, the Revolution happens, and it all goes downhill.
Marie Antoinette premiered last year in a coproduction of Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theater. Those stagings, also helmed by Taichman, reveled in the excess — Marie and her friends (played here by Marsha Stephanie Blake and Jennifer Ikeda) first appeared in three-foot-tall wigs. This sumptuousness has been eliminated for the Soho Rep production; the director and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez have scaled down their original concept to fit Soho Rep's oddly situated 51-foot stage. As a result, all of the action now plays in front of a white slab of wall that reads the play's title.
Taichman has certain smartly executed ideas, like context-setting projections that Marie reads along with the audience. Also adding some dimension here are an extraordinary use of sound (designed by Matt Hubbs) and lighting (Stephen Strawbridge). But overall, this lack of excess (and a single dress for Marie) doesn't work in the play's favor.
Despite a full company of ten, this is really Ireland's play, and she nicely charts the course of action. In Anka Lupes' frilly pink dress, Ireland is a dead ringer for early Paris Hilton, talking in that annoying Valley Girl singsong, raising her voice to a shrill whine whenever something bad happens. And towards the end, when Marie becomes more introspective, she impressively injects the character with the right amount of pathos to convey Adjmi's thesis — certain people just can't understand how their lives spiral so out of control. And for that, they pay the price.