‘You lead a dissipated life,” Marie Antoinette’s mother railed in a 1775 letter to her royal daughter. “I hope I shall not live to see the disaster that is likely to ensue.”
“I know people think I’m very bad,” Marie says in David Adjmi’s play “Marie Antoinette,” now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. “I’m wholesome! I feel so misunderstood.”
“Why do we still care about this woman?” director Yury Urnov asks about the Austrian-born French queen whose “let them eat cake” attitude toward her starving citizens was one of the factors that led to the 1789 French Revolution and her eventual beheading (though she apparently never uttered the line for which she’s infamous). “Why do we like to keep killing her over time? We bring her back and chop her head off.”
Filmmaker Sofia Coppola made a “Marie Antoinette” in 2006 with Kirsten Dunst, loosely based on Antonia Fraser’s 2001 biography. The French film “Farewell, My Queen” played U.S. screens in 2012, and the latest in a procession of Antoinette books is Jonathan Beckman’s “How to Ruin a Queen.” Now comes Adjmi’s “Marie,” a slangy, contemporary-feeling historical drama that premiered sumptuously in 2012 as a co-production of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and Yale Repertory Theatre before being stripped down at New York’s Soho Rep. last year.
What are a Russian director and his American leading lady to make of this undying fascination? As they readied Adjmi's play for its D.C. premiere, Urnov (a 38-year-old Russian who has been working mainly in the U.S. since 2009) and Woolly actress Kimberly Gilbert (38, playing Marie) reflected on French history, the Russian and American present, and the upside of the queen who was executed in 1793, just before she turned 38.
Gilbert: There’s a level of rebellion in Marie in the beginning that shows in her extravagancy of wigs and wardrobe. The more lavish she became was part of her desire to prove to people that she was an able-bodied woman who could have children. [Marie and Louis XVI apparently took several years to consummate their marriage.]
There were plenty of other queens, so what is it about Marie that is so iconic now?
Urnov: Her celebrity. She’s history’s celebrity.
Gilbert: She was a symbol of peace that kind of sealed the deal between Austria and Russia and France. And just as she was the symbol of prosperity and happiness, she became the symbol of the revolution.
Urnov: Also, she’s not doing anything most of the time.
Gilbert: She’s famous for being famous. And what does that do to a psyche, when you are famous just for being born, and you are the most amazing thing in the world? What you don’t learn is responsibility. You don’t learn consequence. You don’t learn perspective. And I think those were all huge marks against her when all of a sudden people started to blame her for the downfall of the world they were inhabiting.
Urnov: What’s interesting about this play is that it’s not taking revolution as a one-night turnover. There are all those different steps, and being on the third step you can never imagine there will be a seventh step. I keep thinking about how history functions this way. When [Russian president Vladimir] Putin started cutting the freedoms down, nobody could imagine it is going to the invasion into Ukraine. It was a joke even three years ago between my brother and me: “And the next thing will be the war with Ukraine, ha ha ha.”
But these things do happen step by step. Same with Marie and this play. There is some unrest: Okay, we can deal with that. And then, boom, something really happens. The Bastille happens. But that’s the beginning of their story, not the end of it. There are years before they get decapitated.
Gilbert: What’s similar now is the idea of the distance between the 1 percent and the 99 per cent. That image now is very similar to what they were shouting from the rooftops in late 18th-century France, the idea that there was no middle class. It was poor people and, like, five dudes with stuff.
David Adjmi’s rhetoric is so wonderfully poetic and contemporary at the same time. It’s so relatable and so human.
Urnov: It’s recognizable relations models: This is how the husband and wife talk today, and this is how you talk to friends, and this is how you talk to somebody you hate.
Gilbert: It’s funny.
Urnov: Funny is a complicated word. The easiest answer to funny is recognizable. So as long as we manage to do things recognizably, they may be funny. But there is a laughter of mocking. . . .
Gilbert: And a laughter of recognition.
Urnov: The recognition, I think, is the laughter we are going after.
“Marie Antoinette,” by David Adjmi. Through Oct. 12 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $35-$68, subject to change. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.