“I’m a little bit trapped, I’m afraid,” says the not-so-poor-butterfly title character in David Adjmi’s audacious and stunning “Marie Antoinette,” a co-production that received joint world preems, first in September at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and now at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn. The lead is recast for New Haven with Marin Ireland (“Reasons to be Pretty”), who gives a smashing perf in this bitter bonbon of a play, sure to find future life on Gotham stages and with audiences looking for theatricality, glamour and a subversive streak.
The work skewers the oblivious royals and one-percenters, understands their bred-to-be-bad behavior and strips away the illusion of not only the monarchy but of democracy, too — a hat trick that Adjmi performs with the delicate balance of comedy, tragedy and wild imaginings.
Adjmi also avoids the exposition trap in writing about historic figures, deftly yet pointedly crafting biographical details as incidental to the story’s human dynamic. In this case it’s the character of Marie, a girl destined to be a queen and shipped off from her native Austria at 14 to wed an emotionally stunted kid-king.
Longing for something more, she tries creating a pastoral world of her childhood, only upscale. But this over-empowered, under-educated girl just doesn’t get it, her bad nurturing trumping nature.
Director Rebecca Taichman beautifully matches Adjmi’s contemporary concepts and conceits with visual and dramatic flair, including one coup de theatre that’s a corker.
That vibrancy is intensified by Matt Hubbs’ hip-but-period sense-around sound design, Gabriel Berry’s red-carpet-run-amuck costumes and especially Riccardo Hernandez’s set, which minimally suggests opulent decadence while still evoking Marie’s surreal dreamscape.
As Marie’s world increasingly becomes distorted, so does her mind, demonstrated by her tete a tete with a sheep (delicately and deliciously played David Greenspan) who warns of troubles ahead and, in the end, tells her of the mistakes she made.
Adjmi’s increasingly dark tone is informed by a strong personal point of view as well as by a world view that is often lacking in other by-the-book bio-tales — and by the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola which also tried to be rock-‘n’-roll bold but missed the bigger score.
Ireland gives a tour de France perf as the royal making the transition from ultimate gossip girl to desperate housewife to queen-for-a-bad-hair-day with perfect emotional pitch. Even in her final seconds, she shows Marie in a new light (thanks to lighting designer Christopher Akerlind), one that gives her character not salvation but eternal satisfaction.
As Louis, Steven Rattazzi is a wonderfully wrought mess who hides from his responsibilities, as well as his wife (“Has it ever occurred to you to rule France?” she says sarcastically).
Brian Wiles is pure cold reason as a revolutionary who cuts Marie down to size. And Jake Silbermann as a handsome courtier offers the queen a fantasy figure who soothes her pain and suggests her memorable future.