Let Them Eat Cake

Beowulf's commendable 'Marie Antoinette' feels timely due to today's economic disparities

The phrases "the 99 percent" and "the 1 percent" have recently been invoked as shorthand for the disparity in our country between the rich and the poor.

But rarely has the gap between the haves and have-nots been so clearly evident as in late 18th-century France, right before the French Revolution. The bloody 1789 revolt led to the execution of monarch Louis XVI and his Austrian queen, Marie Antoinette.

Perhaps because of its resonance to today, Beowulf Alley chose to perform Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh, a play with the historical backdrop of the French Revolution.

"Why perform a play about Marie Antoinette," director Teresa Simone asks in a note in the program, "without contemplating the question, who are the royalty of today?"

Marie Antoinette has become a symbol of an out-of-touch ruling class—a spoiled aristocrat whose obliviousness to the plight of the poor led to her own downfall. Many artists have attempted to depict her by either condemning her or trying to rehabilitate her reputation. This 2007 play by Joel Gross puts Marie in a love triangle.

The action begins in 1774. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, a real-life painter in 18th-century France, aspires to paint portraits of the queen. Played by Hilary Metzger, Elisa has risen from poverty to paint pretty pictures of aristocrats. She is seduced by Count Alexis (Adrian Gomez), who spouts notions of democratic reform while enjoying the privileges afforded by his title.

Alexis' connections enable Elisabeth to secure the patronage of Marie (Rachel Santay), but difficulties arise when Marie herself falls for the count.

Against the backdrop of these romantic affairs, we are made aware of the impact of politics. Alexis leaves to aid the Americans in fighting their own revolution, and pressure increases on the queen as her French subjects become ever more restive.

Santay, Metzger and Gomez are all attractive, charismatic actors who are able to meet the demands of the script. They not only act out a passionate love triangle, but also must spout a lot of expository dialogue about the French Revolution. (At a few moments on opening night, each paused tellingly, indicating that the task of memorizing all of that dialogue might have been too much.) The actors must also grapple with the play's weighty themes: What is required of artists during periods of social change? Is there such as thing as a true aristocracy?

This energetic trio is enhanced by Virginia Miller in the nonspeaking role of Pierrot, the traditional French sad clown. Pierrot is a visual reminder of the plight of the poor, serving as an entertainer and as a footstool to the queen. The silent clown also keeps us aware of the suffering masses outside of the insular love triangle.

Ultimately, in any historical drama, it is the costume designers who do the most-important work. The events of long ago are so associated with dress that a failure in the costumes can prove devastatingly distracting. But without a massive budget, how can a theatrical production re-create the excesses of 18th-century French fashion? Costume-designer David Swisher arrives at a brilliant solution: His costumes are not strictly realistic. As Marie, Santay wears a ball gown that's bedazzled with sequins—and at the same time, he makes reference to the queen's documented fascination with rustic shepherdess dresses. The queen loved pretending to be a member of the working class, and she liked to be depicted in paintings as a humble shepherdess or milkmaid. So Swisher's over-the-top number, with a full skirt that cuts off short at the ankles, simultaneously evokes the queen's naiveté and excess. He also has her wearing the court's de rigueur white wig.

When, in her final scene, we see the queen in prison without her wig or gown, the change is a shock, highlighting how effectively the costuming and Santay's performance have conveyed entitled privilege.

The costumes help define the characters in subtle ways throughout the evening. In his early scenes, for instance, Alexis wears a noble's shiny, satin shirt. Upon his return from newly democratic America, he enters in a fringed vest, denim jeans and cowboy boots, iconic symbols of the American West. The get-up is not historically accurate—it belongs to the 19th century instead of the 18th—but the costume makes us aware of the character's ideological changes.

Designer Jim Ambrosek's scenic design is an effective piece of minimalism. He swathes the stage in transparent drapery, through which we see silhouettes of the actors in passionate embrace. The gauzy cloth readily conveys the intrigue at the French court as well as the ambiguities of passion.

Similarly, when Marie is imprisoned, her jail is indicated by piles of shredded paper on the floor. Perhaps these simple props refer to the ruling classes of today, whose corporations sometimes leave shredded paper trails of their misdeeds. Or maybe the paper piles are just a way to show a character being trapped. Either way, they work well.

Beowulf's Marie Antoinette is an ambitious commentary on the excesses of the ruling class—and this commentary is executed via a restrained, minimal production.

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