The spectacle of Marie Antoinette in a striped bikini certainly announces a brash updated view of the notorious French queen at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. In the lively extravaganza of a history play “Marie Antoinette,” actress Kimberly Gilbert’s Marie flounces with giddy delight, snorting a little powder up her nose and gabbing idly with her ladies in waiting.
She’s a poster child for self-indulgence, and we knew that — after all, this is the woman eternally tarred with the tone-deaf phrase “Let them eat cake” as the French citizenry starved. (Apparently she never said that, yet come the revolution, the citizens lopped off her head.) We also knew that there is still something we “like” about this powerful figure’s hapless vacuity from Sofia Coppola’s pop-flavored 2006 film, though David Adjmi’s drama is significantly darker as it chronicles history’s grim march.
That’s what director Yury Urnov captures and exploits so effectively in his sweeping, highly watchable production at Woolly Mammoth. Sending up the queen is one thing, and Adjmi’s script certainly invites that, declaring early that it’s 1776 (the story moves in chapters until her 1793 execution) but giving Marie and her crowd a slangy contemporary language that we might call Kardashian.
The stage is a fashion runway: As Marie’s lover Axel Fersen, Bradley Foster Smith enters wearing tight black jeans and strutting more cockily than even Gilbert’s Marie, who eyes the audiences now and then with the coquettish grin of a hyper-exposed vixen broadcasting selfies by the hundreds. Joe Isenberg likably pads around in a silk robe as Louis XVI, Marie’s husband and France’s king. (The century-hopping costumes and wigs are by Helen Huang.) You’d happily have a beer with this amiable guy, if only he wasn’t letting his country go down the tubes.
Adjmi also surreally includes a philosophical talking sheep, played by Woolly stalwart Sarah Marshall with splendidly calibrated blend of whimsy and foreboding. In this sort of freewheeling imaginary environment, flippancy could easily get the upper hand.
But this is a story of vengeance, too, and Adjmi pours torrents of anti-Marie wrath through that innocent-looking sheep — well, as innocent as a sheep’s head on a pike can look — and through a single figure called the “Revolutionary,” acted by deep-voiced James Konicek with his face war-painted red, white and blue. Like Tony Kushner in “Angels in America” — a more substantial and irresistibly immediate drama, to be sure — Adjmi unzips history and unleashes his richest political conversations in some of the unlikeliest places.
In response, the imagery concocted by Urnov and set designer Misha Kachman, both Russian-born and trained, is often fantastic. Jewel-toned pinks and greens overwhelm your eye in the early opulent scenes, and even though you know everything will be stripped from Marie as the plot surges toward revolution, the show’s remorselessly expanding sense of scale and menace is sometimes startling.
Mainly, though, Adjmi’s “Marie” is a character study obsessed with queen Marie’s ignorance and helplessness. The play launches with the adrenaline of celebrity, and Gilbert amusingly basks in the attention. As Marie’s reputation tanks, Gilbert is also furious and defiant, yet also the opposite of dumb, even if Marie is tragically unenlightened. Gilbert’s face frequently flickers with mortification as Marie begins to get the bigger picture – not just of what will happen, but why.
Frustratingly, Adjmi’s play feels a bit like a Rorschach test: Is the petulant, wifty Marie us? Is she our grinning, pablum-spouting leaders? The playwright’s attack is not terribly pointed, even as the of-the-moment trappings (and Adjmi’s stated dissatisfaction with George W. Bush as he began this play roughly seven years ago) courts comparisons with our own rhetoric about the 99 percent.
What the play ultimately conveys is sympathy for Antoinette in her gilded cage. It’s Urnov’s staging that resonates, with its vivid depiction of the brutality that can be unleashed whenever history reverses course.
By David Adjmi. Directed by Yury Urnov. Lights, Jen Schriever; sound designer and composer, Eric Shimelonis. With Gavin Lawrence, Dawn Ursula, Sue Jin Song, Cole Edelstein, and Zephyr Ingle. About two hours. Through Oct. 12 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 541 D St. NW. Tickets $35-$73, subject to change. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net