I guess it’s official now: Marie Antoinette is a 21st-century American cultural metaphor in the tragic airhead/poor-little-rich-kid vein. A sort of Danube Valley Girl. A Habsburg Kardashian. Barely literate yet thoroughly steeped in the lore of the Pradas and Louboutins of her era, our Marie has been bred for nothing but display. She’s trapped in a luxurious vacuum—a celebrity without achievements, a personality without self-knowledge, a victim of privilege condemned to play consort to a sexually incompetent recessive called Louis XVI. Even her forays into back-to-nature simplicity are expensive fakes. Proto-detox spas, really. She can’t help it: she’s Marie Antoinette. It takes a revolution to set her free, although probably not in the way she’d hoped.
Sofia Coppola defined the trope in her 2006 movie Marie Antoinette. As embodied by Kirsten Dunst and played out to an anachronistically modern pop score, the French queen develops from a teenaged naif into an unfulfilled adult under constant pressure to accept and (fail to) satisfy her various ceremonial roles. I can understand Coppola’s desire to retool the callous let-them-eat-cake Marie of tradition: Not only is there a feminist point about the social construction of identity to be teased from her life, but Coppola herself might empathize as the daughter of that Hollywood royal Francis Ford Coppola. The woman who caught hell in the press for starring in daddy’s godawful The Godfather, Part III undoubtedly has a few thoughts to offer on the subject of public personas.
What I can’t understand is why playwright David Adjmi would care to repeat Coppola’s exercise so faithfully onstage, in his own Marie Antoinette. Directed here by Robert O’Hara, with a cast featuring some of the finest actors Steppenwolf Theatre has to waste, Adjmi’s 2012 script follows essentially the same trajectory as Coppola’s in pursuit of essentially the same insights.
His Marie is introduced as a superficially refined and (thanks to the pairing of costume designer Dede M. Ayite with hair-and-makeup designer Dave Bova) spectacularly outfitted ignoramus, in residence at Versailles after having been deployed at a tender age to strike a conjugal alliance with the Bourbons. During an amusing opening passage, she and her ladies in waiting pace the oblong platform stage like runway models, namedropping Rousseau, whining about the American Revolution, comparing pets, and commiserating over all the rules they’re forced to obey. “I can’t take it!” screeches Alana Arenas‘s queen, sounding exactly like an adolescent entering her troubled years. Before long we meet another thing she can’t take: her husband Louis, who tinkers with broken clocks, hides when company arrives, and—in Tim Hopper’s movingly exasperating performance—appears always to have just woke up from an unsatisfying nap. “Has it ever occurred to you,” Marie asks him when first she finds him sitting on the floor before a box full of gears and springs, “to run France?”
From there we visit the familiar landmarks of Marie Antoinette’s life, including motherhood, a reluctant affair, incarceration after the French Revolution, the attempt to flee to Austria (carrying Louis Vuitton luggage, of course), and her final tumbrel ride into history. The show exploits the surreal possibilities of the theater—most notably by conjuring Alan Wilder, equal parts ominous and silly as a talking sheep who pays visits to Marie at significant junctures. And Adjmi allows himself a much more acidic tone than Coppola does. His Marie can be appallingly mean and ridiculously stupid. She directs flashes of infantile anger at her son, has to ask what a windmill is for. Her narcissism is so complete that it prevents her from recognizing that she’s in danger.
Still, for Adjmi as for Coppola, Marie remains the teen-queen victim, the helpless soul destroyed by the mechanisms of the social order. Adjmi goes so far as to give her a Joan of Arc moment in which she glimpses immortality as the figurative flames lick at her feet. He doesn’t seem to be fooling, either.
I wish he were. Marie Antoinette may very well be the Marilyn Monroe of 18th-century France. But there’s something ugly about apotheosizing her suffering rather than that of the real victims of the social order: the people who ultimately rose up and stopped her from building Rousseauian farms while they starved. Especially at a moment when, according to Oxfam, a handful of people will soon own more than 50 percent of the wealth in the world, we could use a playwright to tell their story. Where’s Brecht when you need him?