Symbol of decadence, martyr of the monarchy, legendary libertine... who was the real Marie Antoinette? In Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s new production of a 2012 play by David Adjmi, we get a series of looks at an ultimately tragic -- but certainly not saintlike -- figure who’s powerfully embodied by Jane Froiland.
Marie Antoinette follows the eponymous queen from 1776 through to her 1793 death. That’s a lot of history to track in under two hours, and the play’s rapid-fire episodic structure distracts from the meaty ideas that it finally gets around to examining.
Director John Heimbuch has a sure hand, with a key assist from composer and sound designer Michael Croswell, whose cues help to smooth transitions. Set designer Annie Henly has created a series of elegant columns that close in on the queen and ultimately become bars in a jail cell. (Hello, visual metaphor!) Still, it would have been nice if the playwright hadn’t given this team quite so many hairpin turns to navigate.
We first meet Antoinette as a caricature of herself, smiling blithely underneath a three-foot pompadour. She soon gets earthier, though, cursing at her childlike husband Louis XVI (Zach Garcia). The play’s first half has her working through the kind of challenges she more or less would have known and expected to face as a foreign-born queen: navigating domestic and foreign politics, figuring out how to get impregnated by a husband with a sexual dysfunction, turning her palace grounds into a proto-Romantic arcadia.
With the foment of revolution, the world changes; after intermission, Antoinette has to grapple with the demise of everything (and just about everyone) she thought she knew. In both acts, a talking sheep (Neal Beckman, creepy) appears, transforming into a terrible creature as the queen’s formerly bucolic surroundings turn hostile.
Froiland’s forthright Marie Antoinette has an unmistakable kinship to Scarlett O’Hara: a tough cookie who does what she needs to do, but wishes she didn’t have to — and who, crucially, never truly understands why her way of life had to come to an end. Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell shared her heroine’s misplaced nostalgia, but Adjmi certainly doesn’t. His play suggests that the monarchy was founded on oppression rather than reason, and one of the play’s most poignant moments comes when Antoinette reveals that she’s so poorly educated, she’s all but illiterate.
The show is a tour de force for Froiland, who goes as far as Adjmi takes her and then pushes beyond. A long conversation as she’s having her hair shorn (props to wig designer Robert A. Dunn for how realistic this looks) finally gives Froiland a proper chance to build energy rather than simply flash with passion, as she’s forced to do in several preceding scenes.
Ultimately, the play argues, Antoinette had to die to become truly immortal. This queen, though, sure packs a lot of life into the time she’s given.