Marie Antoinette never said, “They don’t have enough bread? Then let them eat cake.” This libel was perpetrated by the people of France who despised MA for her youth, her penchant for expensive jewelry, for dressing up as a shepherdess (she really did this), for her sexuality (they denounced her as a lesbian/nymphomaniac/adulterer).
But mostly they hated Marie for her Austrianness. A vile German seductress, she lead their beloved King Louis down the road to Rouen. Louis would never have made those insensitive statements, done those repressive and violent things, ignored the revolutionaries clamoring to rid France of the ancien regime, were it not for the evil MA whispering in the background, egging Louis hatefully on.
Marie never said it. Still, playwright David Adjmi, in Marie Antoinette (Walking Shadow Theatre Co, through March 4) gives us the “Let them eat cake” Marie. Adjmi’s Marie is a young Austrian girl sold into velvet slavery (she was a mere 14 when she became queen of France), swept up by events she doesn’t fully understand. This Marie longs for Vienna, for her daily espresso. “I’m feeling trapped. There is something inside me, trying to get out.” Marie drinks pinkie-out tea, makes gossip with the Versailles hangers-on, helps her husband with his unthinkable penis surgery (I’ll spare you the details) – and watches helplessly as France descends into chaos.
Adjmi is interested in the nature of death (“Virtue without terror is unthinkable”) and morality (“Monarchy is based on inequality and is thus unnatural”). This gives the play, which otherwise tends toward the static, genuine substance.
Marie Antoinette is the Jane Froiland show. Froiland plays Marie with sparkly energy, eyes flashing, giggling. Brittle and powerful at the same time. Marie is at sea, quite lost, but Froiland never lets on. She wears her bizarre wigs as if born to them. Her lapses into passion and anger give her substance. They could make her petty, but it is to Froiland’s great credit that they do not. Froiland truly gives a play-making performance. She reveals herself to be an actor of power and presence. As if we ever doubted it.
Other actors acquit themselves nicely. WS stalwart David Beukema is very effective as Emperor Joseph and ditto Zach Garcia as the hapless (and less hapless than he seems) King Louis. The ever-sweet Suzie Juul thrills as Yolande de Polignac as does Teresa Mock as de Lamballe.
Marie Antoinette suffers from energy-sapping scene transitions: down come the lights, up comes the Baroque music, props get taken on or off, set pieces moved into place. In the meantime, the play disappears. This is my theatrical pet-peeve. Maybe I need to shut up about it.
Like many plays currently up and running, Marie Antoinette is not terrible. And Jane Froiland makes it worthwhile.
John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. His The Sisters Eight will be presented at First Stage Milwaukee. His screenplays, A Slaying Song Tonight and The Deflowering Of Father Trimleigh are under option. Please visit his informational website.