So, the great nation of France is saddled with crushing national debt. They’re battered from war, the people are starving, and a revolutionary ember crackles quietly beneath the surface of the political landscape.
Sounds like a great time for a fashion show! Or at least, it is for Marie Antoinette (Kimberly Gilbert) and her friends at court. But the Marie delivered to us by Woolly Mammoth Theatre company and director Yury Urnov isn’t the Franco-Austrian debutante from your history books, quietly enjoying her life of luxury. She’s a diva who powers down the runway in the opening scenes of the show, striking poses for the paparazzi, vainly baring her bikini and stopping only to take an elegant bath or imbibe a line of “aspirin” laid out on a silver tray.
Don’t worry – playwright David Adjmi gets the historically dubious “let them eat cake” line out of the way early so you don’t have to wait for it with bated breath, but we don’t need it. It’s pretty clear this girl likes to party, poverty-stricken countryside be damned.
Marie Antoinette pops with contemporary energy, hurling curtains of dark comedy into the audience. The play is laced with rich metaphors and political overtones that are relevant and thought provoking, but above all Marie Antoinette is deeply disturbing – in the best way possible, of course.
Not a single member of the cast and crew fails to do the show justice, either. Joe Isenberg is tremendous as the middling and ever-young Louis XVI, inspiring well-earned disgust from start to finish. Marie’s friends at court, including Joseph (Gavin Lawrence), Yolande de Polignac (Dawn Ursula), Therese de Lambaille (Sue Jin Song) and Axel Fersen (Bradley Foster Smith) could all have been easily overshadowed, but strong acting and big personalities all around lead to some memorable performances.
Of course Marie Antoinette isn’t just a comedic romp through Louie and Marie’s failures at governance. The people are rising up, and the result is pure horror – delivered in a one-two punch from a revolutionary and a sheep. First is James Konicek as the face of the revolution. He appears from the shadows, his face is painted grimly in the “tricolor.” His clothes are dingy and rough, and really all he needs is a chainsaw and he could be the face of an 80’s horror flick. Konicek is terrifying, and it’s a job well done.
Then there’s “Sheep” (Sarah Marshall), a figment of Marie’s imagination. Sheep is devilishly unassuming, warning Marie of what’s to come and… evolving… as the events unfold. Marshall does it right, mixing humor and fear with ease, and she no doubt left more than a few patrons unsettled well into their ride home.
And of course there’s Kimberly Gilbert as Marie Antoinette. Gilbert is a powerhouse as the girl you love to hate, and equally forceful as she descends into madness from inside her prison cell. But her performance offers some subtle touches that show there’s more to Marie than her runway dazzle.
The same goes for the rich costuming from Helen Huang and a set by Misha Kachman that turns deliciously from French palace to punk-rock dungeon as the pieces fall away one at a time. The work is dazzling and modern, and the work that went in paid off.
But hey, we know why we’re here. We want to see Marie (and to a lesser extent Louis) get what’s coming to them! For them it’s all jewels and powdered wigs, but real people are starving out there… so let’s see some heads in a basket!
Closes October 12, 2014
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $55 – $73
Wednesdays thru Sundays
220-year-old spoiler alert: They both die. And perhaps the level of schadenfreude we all experience watching their luxurious existence unravel is well-founded, but Marie is nonetheless a character with depth and dimension. She was fourteen years old when she was forced into this life, and really how much perspective can we expect her to have at that point?
Sure, she was clueless and out-of-touch before Paris Hilton made it cool on “The Simple Life,” but thanks to the tremendous effort from Kimberly Gilbert this Marie Antoinette isn’t entirely unsympathetic. And yes, if this were a trial, her lawyer would have pulled her from the stand to avoid self-incrimination as she goes on about the “124 kitchens” she once enjoyed or her pleadings to Louis for “a new palace.” Really, even her nostalgic longings for trivial things like biscuits and gambling show that for Marie, perspective and remorse just aren’t in the cards.
But the revolutionaries of Marie Antoinette aren’t the brave, barricaded heroes of Les Miserables (a different rebellion historically, but you get the point). Marie faces down a bloodthirsty mob without a complete understanding of what they’re after, and for a teenage girl at court who never asked for this life it does all seem a little unfair.
Marie Antoinette has it all: Comedy and horror, angry mobs and villains brought down. You’ll laugh, you’ll think, you’ll recoil in fear. And while the production probably isn’t for everyone, even Marie Antoinette couldn’t ask for more.
Marie Antoinette by David Adjimi . Directed by Yury Urnov . Featuring Kimberly Gilbert, Joe Isenberg, Gavin Lawrence, Bradley Foster Smith, Dawn Ursula, Sue Jin Song, Sarah Marshall, James Konicek, Cole Edelstein . Set design: Mischa Kachman . Costume and Wig design: Helen Huang . Lighting design: Jen Schneiver . Sound design and Composer: Eric Shimelonis . Vocal director: Gary Logan . Production Dramaturg: Kirsten Bowen . Production Stage Manager: Kristy Matero . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.
Closes October 12
Jon Boughtin . DCTheatreScene pops with contemporary energy, hurling curtains of dark comedy into the audience.
Kate Wingfield . Metro Weekly Burning with the energy of this unguided missile, Kimberly Gilbert is grimly and brilliantly captivating as Marie.
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner it pulls you in visually, hypnotically and, finally, emotionally.
Chris Klimek . City Paper starring the masterful Kimberly Gilbert in the biggest role of her brilliant career
Amanda Gunther . TheatreBloom a provocative new work
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post It’s Urnov’s staging that resonates, with its vivid depiction of the brutality that can be unleashed whenever history reverses course.
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld Bright, colorful and fun are the name of the game early on, replaced by a dark and moody vibe later on.
Jennifer Minich . MdTheatreGuide a mesmerizing spectacular well worth the trip…
Robert Michael Oliver . DCMetroTheaterArts Gilbert finds the sweet spot for her character, triangulating among Snooki, Paris Hilton, and Vanessa Redgrave
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