Monday, September 10, 2012

Review of "Marie Antoinette" at the A.R.T. - The Empress Has No Clothes

Since Diane Paulus took over as Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater, I have come to  expect to be amazed and delighted whenever I enter the performance space at the Loeb Theater or at the Oberon.   This past Friday, as I spent time on Brattle Street at the Loeb, I was amazed that I was not at all delighted with the world premiere of David Adjmi's latest play, "Marie Antoinette."  I am not the kind of critic or theater-goer who enjoys saying negative things about the theater.  In this case, I have no choice but to share my honest reactions and disappointment.

The play struck me as a loosely assembled pastiche of a variety of elements that did not really belong together.  The play is part absurdist parody, part hip hop mash-up, part political satire and part social commentary.  None of it worked for me.  The playwright attempts to have his cake and eat it to, presenting Marie Antoinette serially as insipid as a Valley girl, misunderstood, type cast in a role she did not choose, earnest, bemused, and then inexplicably philosophical as she faces death.  There is no logical development of the character within the play that would explain how this uneducated Austrian princess would be capable at the end of her life of speechifying about democracy and morality as if she had been educated across the street at Radcliffe.  The playwright clearly had some things he wanted to say about the 1% and equality and justice, and created a Marie Antoinette that would serve as his mouthpiece.  I was not buying what she or he was selling.

The device of using an imagined sheep - from Marie's Bo Peep fantasy dream life - to provide Greek chorus-like commentary did not work for me at all, although in the role of Sheep, David Greenspan did an admirable job of keeping his head while all else around him made no sense.

The rest of the cast toiled in workmanlike fashion to make the best of a bad script.  None stood out, although they all bring strong credentials as Equity actors.

The most memorable part of the evening for me was an unexpected and explosive coup de theatre that not only stunned the audience but changed the landscape of the play for the remaining scenes.  It was a dramatic moment that was unmatched by the rest of the evening's action.

Fans of the A.R.T., do not lose heart.  We are only a few months away from an event I very much look forward to - the 40th anniversary revival of Stephen Schwartz's "Pippin," to be directed by Ms. Paulus.  "Time to start livin'"!

While I have your attention, let me share one more quibble that has to do with the venue, and not with the play, per se.  During intermission, my guest and I waited in  line to order a glass of red wine. Prominently displayed on the counter of the refreshment stand was a sign that read:  "You may bring your drink in the theater"!  The Loeb Theater is a Harvard institution, and as such, should be vigilant for preserving proper grammar.  Someone in authority, please change the sign into a grammatically correct phrase - "You may consume your drink in the theater," or "You may bring your drink into the theater."

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