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The Sunday Critic

Marie Antoinette: Let Them Eat Revisionism

With Marie Antoinette, the NOLA Project twerks across the line separating hip from hipper-than-thou…then, thanks to the subtlety of its director and leading lady, pivots back to credibility again.


The playwright David Adjmi’s latest exploration of the depths of shallowness (it is his specialty, apparently) makes its area premier trailing a tin-can string of mixed reviews. Following closely in the wake of the same-name 2006 film by Sofia Coppola (to whom I hope Mr Adjmi is paying a portion of his royalties), Marie Antoinette posits – for two-thirds of its running time – that its poor-little-rich-girl got executed during the French Revolution not because of her and Louis XVI’s lavish ways during a period of high debt, unpopular taxation, and bad harvests in France; nor because of the influence of the American Revolution and the Enlightenment; nor even because of nativist resentment for the privileged Austrian, but because of awful press. The sort of anonymous Twitter sniping from the unwashed masses that, you know, Britney and Lindsay and Paris have to put up with. And she just did not deserve it, you know! 


This is the perfect history play for an ahistoric people, outfitted with a pseudo-challenging point of view that covertly caters to the predispositions of its likely audience. Who in the house for modern American theatre is going to be caught dead tweeting about the Kardashians? 


Only for two-thirds of its running time, as I said. Once Marie and her family are recaptured following an escape attempt and confined to a cell, the play turns thoroughly conventional. The post-mod gimmickry is dropped. Marie’s already-begun process of maturation accelerates, so that she can die a misunderstood but admirable heroine. (The process gets badly derailed by the linchpin escape scene which features a terrified Marie’s being recaptured on a accunt of a sudden determination to hang with the locals and understnad their lives.) Supporting characters make quickie reappearances so that Adjmi can shoehorn in all of the actual history that he neglected in the early going. The Revolutionary who guards her becomes Marie’s special sounding board…for the info that she is nearly illiterate, for the revelation that she was born for nothing else, et cetera. “Why are you telling me this?” he asks her, not gently. “Do you think I can save you?” 


“No,” Marie replies, in a small voice…followed in my head by Adjmi’s voice, still smaller, “but I had to fit in this research somewhere.” Had he the nerve to leave Marie unchanged by suffering, a resentful and uncomprehending ditz to the end, or, even bolder, to argue that the French hoi polloi should have been happy to put up with a little privation in support of such fabulously entertaining creatures (he comes close to that stance, a few times) Adjmi would have had an annoying but genuinely provocative play. But this is not a brave writer, and he has only an annoying one.


I do not apologize for spending this much wordage on the play apart from its production. Unless locally created, straight plays of less than five years’ vintage are rare as hen’s teeth in New Orleans. Only the NOLA Project, Southern Rep and, occasionally, for new comedies, Rivertown Theatres, have the resources, followings, and will to regularly mount them. And as the Project’s season opener, Marie Antoinette enjoys pride of place.


So if it’s dubious as history and useless as social commentary, reliably snicker-inducing but unremarkable as comedy, what is the appeal here? Costume pageantry, for one. Shauna Leone’s mash-up of Park Avenue hot-mess fashions with 18th-century court opulence is pitch-perfect, as are Christopher Arthur’s yowza wigs. (Bill Walker’s set design is as well-composed as was his work on Cuckoo’s Nest, but this one doesn’t remain “a character its own right” as that design did. After a vivid first impression, it turns into background.) Mostly, though, Marie Antoinette demands attention as a star vehicle.


Cecile Monteyne is at the center of every scene. An admitted admirer of “big” acting – bravura, over-the-top, call it what you will – it’s taken me awhile to appreciate what the NOLA Project’s de facto leading lady does: Accrete size, and force, by layering one carefully chosen and subtle choice atop another, until the effect is the same as if she’d just let ‘er rip. (Even in her “mad scene” solo Monteyne doesn’t let it rip, delivering most of her lines to herself rather than to the room.) It’s an acting style that on paper sounds more suited for film, but it’s been powerful every time I’ve seen it. Even when particular moments here don’t click – and given the sketchiness of Adjmi’s relationships, there were several – Monteyne uses her sad eyes to anchor them in something like reality.


Let me put it more simply. No actor has ever aged twenty years before my eyes more believably.


In her soft-spoken approach Monteyne has her perfect director. Mark Routhier’s guidance is as seamlessly invisible as it was on Cuckoo’s Nest. The stage picture is alive and in constant motion, yet not once did a cross, a turn, or a reaction shot call attention to itself.


In the second-trickiest role, A.J. Allegra goes for the broad and goofy with great deftness, leaving his Louie just enough room for us to buy his eventual growth-under-duress, even though he has much less give in his role than Monteyne does in hers. In the first-trickiest role – by that I mean “most awful po-mo device imaginable” – as the Cassandra-like Sheep who counsels Marie, James Bartelle is reliably terrific. Bartelle has mastered the projection of invisible “just go with me on this, okay guys?” supertitles without winking at the audience. Amongst the rest of the excellent supporting cast, Julie Dietz, unknown to me, made the brightest impression as Therese De Lamballe, one of Marie’s bubbly confidantes.  (The program timeline notes that Therese was murdered and beheaded herself, for refusing to denounce the King and Queen. Were the play not so Mariecentric, that is a scene I would have liked to see.)


There’s real pleasure in the moment-to-moment entertainment of Marie Antoinette, and if you can leave the theatre satisfied with the so-tired closing notes of “Kill me now, yes, but then I will live forever!” (not an actual quote) all is well. But her fully realized embodiments of Marie and the not-quite-as-mechanically-assembled angsty teen in Shiner make me hope that someday someone sees fit to wrap Cecile Monteyne in the work of a playwright whose depth and subtlety match her own. She was born to wear Chekhov.

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Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt

B. E. Mintz

Stephen Babcock

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