Chicago Theater Review: MARIE ANTOINETTE (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 15, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


The putative appeal of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette is that everyone likes to watch a train wreck. Now exfoliating in Steppenwolf’s upper stage in a dispensable Chicago premiere, this 2012 sendup of celebrity worship and its fickle reversals is a fitting showcase in costly Steppenwolf style. A splendid mirror runway reflects faded white roses dangling above. Flanking this parade platform are vast video screens depicting every delicacy. Sumptuous costumes change every quarter-hour. Strutting Alana Arenas (Marie Antoinette) with Ariel Shafir (Axel Fersen) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Marie Antoinetteher stuff, the clueless Queen of France (Alana Arenas, snarling and gorgeous) is a Diana Ross prototype buttressed by her Supremes-style confidantes (Tamberla Perry and Ericka Ratcliff). She’s a paragon of privilege whose gravy train will suddenly derail at only 37.

Over a protracted and increasingly empty two hours, this detested outsider reveals herself as a coddled, homesick Hapsburg princess married to a dithering, sexually inadequate Louis XVI (Tim Hopper) who fixes clocks but ruins a nation. Gallivanting a glory trail or pouting in gilded boudoirs with a chosen lover (Ariel Shafir), this detested Austrian outsider will sashay her way from necklace scandals and a peudo-hamlet in the gardens of Versailles to a cold cell in La Conciergerie and a fatal date with Madame Guillotine. Her one true advisor is a sheep (Alan Wilder) who belatedly warns her that the bankrupt, overtaxed, and xenophobic French people can no longer endure this party-crazed predator. Inevitably, M.A.’s phony stature will be literally shortened on the ironically named Place de La Concorde.

Tim Hopper (Louis XVI) and Alana Arenas (Marie Antoinette) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Marie AntoinetteAdjmi’s reimagining is no faithful, archival recreation of the “ancient regime” in its prideful death throes–not that we need one. Instead we enter a hiply irreverent, toxically anachronistic Palace of Versailles circa 2015. Ear-splitting explosions pound home the encroaching French Revolution. Clumsily stilted expository dialogue delivers desultory details presumably lifted from Wikipedia but never processed into dynamic dialogue.

Minus any pathos and mired in pretense, Adjmi’s Bourbon bombshell is a spendthrift narcissist who won’t economize to save her neck (“I can’t wear burlap!”). This poor little rich girl finds herself caught in “a game that other people play” that soon becomes “a long suck on a dry prune.” Lonely at the top and weighed down by elaborate 3-foot headdresses, the “Butterfly Queen” ignores advice from her worried brother Joseph II (Keith D. Gallagher). She’d rather ape humility by playing shepherdess in her theme-park “hameau,” petulantly enduring accusations of lesbianism and prostitution from unwashed haters.

Ericka Ratcliff (Yolande De Polignac), Tamberla Perry (Therese De Lamballe) and ensemble member Alana Arenas (Marie Antoinette) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Marie Antoinette

But she clearly has a heart, as she programmatically informs us: “I know there’s something else in me that wants to get out? A little bird beating its wings against the inside of its cage—it’s funny.” (Where’s Maxwell Anderson when you need him?)

Tim Hopper (Louis XVI) and Alana Arenas (Marie Antoinette) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Marie Antoinette.Hopper’s husband, too ignorant to choke on his own imposture, is deaf to warnings from the National Assembly that dared to hold a convention on his tennis court. Assorted massacres and the fall of the Bastille are at worst unpleasantnesses. After undergoing “palace arrest,” the royal family’s escape is thwarted at Varennes, when the disguised monarchs idiotically ask local peasants how a windmill works.

Separated from the bratty Dauphin (Matthew Abraham), humiliated by an insolent “sans culottes” revolutionary (Tim Frank) who hurls her diamond jewelry into a trap door, Alana’s deposed diva is a sorry sight. Her ascent to the scaffold is just one last fall from grace. There’s little dignity in the demise of this animatronic Antoinette, a spitting fishwife whose “train wreck” is utterly unedifying. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not even a person” is as profound an insight as this painted potentate can muster. Ambushed by history, exposing her pretensions by misusing words, this transparent creature can only plead, “I wasn’t raised, I was built to be this thing; and now they’re killing me for it.” Poor butterfly.

Ariel Shafir (Axel Fersen) and ensemble member Alana Arenas (Marie Antoinette) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Marie AntoinetteOf course, as you must when camouflaging threadbare material, director (and playwright) Robert O’Hara’s staging is distractedly extravagant, beautifully illustrated by Jeff Sugg’s flamboyant projections, and the eye-popping opulence of Dede M. Ayite’s Mardi Gras/fashion show raiment. But it can’t conceal the play’s critical disappointment—it aims at the wrong targets.

It’s way too easy to subvert racial stereotypes to mock TMZ-style celebrity “culture” with its unearned entitlement and self-destructive fear of exposure. “Has my life been a diversion?,” a bling-covered Marie asks. But the play is the real evasion, a sad copout. Beyonce and Madonna are not the 21st century equivalents of the parasites of the Trianons and Tuileries. Today’s oligarchical, aristocratic 1%–who would be carted on tumbrils to busy guillotines if 2015 were 1789—are nowhere represented in Adjmi’s very safe modernization. For all its foul-mouthed bluster, this sassy update is remarkably sanitized. “It can’t happen here” is, alas, its constantly comforting subtext.

Ensemble member Alana Arenas (Marie Antoinette) with Ericka Ratcliff (Yolande De Polignac) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette is special to see but not hear. Half-baked content aside, this is a gloriously cheesy spectacle of scenic/costumed overkill. We’re regaled with a Slumdog Millionaire fantasy in sequins, gems, roses, fireworks, and rock mock. If a flashy fulmination of stylistic excess is your dream night at the theater, this Vogue Versailles is open for pleasure.

Alan Wilder (Sheep) and Alana Arenas (Marie Antoinette) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Marie Antoinettephotos by Michael Brosilow

Marie Antoinette
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre
1650 N Halsted St
ends on May 10, 2015
for tickets, call 312.335.1650
or visit

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