Sunday, March 08, 2015

Let them tweet cake: 'Marie Antoinette' at Steppenwolf

Ericka Ratcliff, Tamberla Perry and Alana Arenas in "Marie Antoinette" (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

"Liberté, égalité, fraternité" is just another meme in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of "Marie Antoinette." We're invited to think of the Enlightenment as the start of our unenlightened age. Seems like a daft notion, but then again how can rebels still see beheadings as all the rage?

The production starts with the Capet queen and her ladies-in-waiting decked out in wide-contour crinoline, but engaged in the idle girl talk of reality television: Marie Antoinette as Kim Kardashian. Alana Arendas has the task of reigning over a Moulin Rouge court, a pastiche that makes Antoinette only 1% aristocrat, or places her in the aristocracy of the 1%.

David Adjmi's play sets her in a tourist Versailles, a hall of scratched mirrors. It's not a vast palace but a small jewel box of family and friends, with not much to the lot of them beyond their aloof, over-the-top image. Louis XVI is not playing a delicate game of empire and reform. Tim Hopper's king is mostly distracted, the inheritor of the family business; his fall, a few convocation missteps. Axel von Fersen (Ariel Shafir) is a flirtatious count on his grand tour, not Rochambeau's aide in the march on Yorktown. There's not much revolution in this rarefied air.

It's a small world after all, and one that reflects back on itself. Marie Antoinette sees her calling as the fashionista, setting trends with her loosened bustle, her pouf and of course her brioche. If she gives a second thought to her reputation as the loose woman, the flit, the tart of the libelles, it's mostly to seethe at how the scandals spread within her court.

This diva plays out this graphic-novel role like she's born it, with little coaching beyond Alan Wilder's sly turn as an Absolutely Fabulous sheep. Marie Antoinette is tone deaf to her proto-hashtag as L'Autrichienne, not an Austrian other but an outré bitch. When the revolution comes, she's unaware she's stoked the reign of terror. "I was built to be this thing; and now they’re killing me for it. But you’d be the same. You’d make the same choices I did.”

This is all too meta for me: Perhaps all revolutions end in a chorus of slogans, but no one's oonstage to sing the whole bloody ballad. Adjmi's royals merely court public opinion, and make no attempt at shaping the narrative. And their subjects bring no revolutionary ideas to the Paris Spring: Their politics are a mere change in fashion. There's a story in how big ideas get reduced to headlines. Adjmi gives us the headline feed.

Again the Steppenwolf actors stretch their material and show it as threadbare. Arendas gives the queen more nobility in her fall than she summons in her equally oblivious reign. Robert O'Hara's direction fixes the cast as creations of privilege and absolves them as co-conspirators. Clint Ramos' traverse stage in the Upstairs Theatre is a theatrical mirror, glaring at both actors and audience, with scenery projected at a distance.

The French monarchs deserve their historic place as manipulator of events, rather than victim of pseudo-events. I left the theater rewriting the play in my head, with Louis XVI as George W. Bush, spoiling for a fight with Britain. He seizes on the American Revolution as his excuse, only to bankrupt his nation and turn popular opinion lethal; the queen struggles rebrand herself as the royal mother of us all. Who'll abdicate their role, the ruler or the public? Pulling that off would be no piece of cake.

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