Marie Antoinette Leaves Audiences Wanting More

marieOur recent review of Lenny Schwartz’s Co-Creator posited that the biographical history formula may have run its course at Daydream Theatre, but after seeing the wildly entertaining Marie Antoinette at The Gamm, it seems that all Schwartz and Co. may require is a larger budget. Marie Antoinette’s story, in the hands of playwright David Adjmi and the always skillful direction of Rachel Walshe, is no different than Daydream’s Bill Finger or Lucille Ball, but with production values such as The Gamm can provide and a nimble, professional cast that keep us wanting more of what is, essentially, a sad, flawed and tragic figure. Like Schwartz’s originals, Marie Antoinette is filled with seriocomic forays into the life of the titular character with generously necessary handfuls of exposition scattered about. In the end, it’s not about liking the characters so much as it is about immersing ourselves in enjoyable performances and well-staged productions. For a season closer, The Gamm could have done far worse. Between Madeleine Lambert’s highly engaging performance and a stunning array of costumes delivered by costume designer Marilyn Salvatore, Marie Antoinette has plenty for everyone, even if this particular genre has its limitations.

It’s hard not to note the similarities between Antoinette and 2013’s Walshe-helmed Anne Boleyn and no one at The Gamm ignores that fact. Lambert is up front in both, artistic director Tony Estrella is featured in a minor role crucial to the plot and heads are separated from shoulders as a matter of course. While Boleyn had its share of laughs, so does this offering, but Marie’s script is often stultified by obligatory bits of scene-setting exposition that take us out of the action and propel us to a different time / place that the sparse (yet exquisite) set, designed by Jessica Hill, cannot. Three glass display cases contain objects (in the blue, white and red of the French flag) that indirectly touch upon places and actions, but mostly serve as museum pieces. In fact, the whole cast becomes a living museum, only flirting with humanity until, in Marie’s final, tortured moments, we get a glimpse of the woman she could never be. The wigs are stacked, a riot of colors, and the dresses certainly award-worthy. Lambert never leaves the stage, dressing in front of us as unconsciously as Marie disrobes in front of the servants. Jed Hancock Brainerd’s foppish Louis XVI is a delightful will-o’-the-wisp, a raw nerve in an unkempt white wig, more at home with his broken clockwork than matters of state, and it is only Jim O’Brien’s grounded Joseph (brother to Marie, and Archduke of Austria) who provides a serious foil for Lambert’s vacillations.

Other standouts in this cast include Casey Seymour Kim, who never fails to impress, as Yolande De Polignac, confidant of Marie. She does double duty as a peasant wife, Mrs. Sauce, and each role gives Seymour Kim ample opportunity to display her superb comic timing and unique phrasing. The young Dauphin, played with serious, yet winking, insouciance by Phineas Peters is also a source for comic relief at times, but mainly serves to remind us of how horrible a mother Marie Antoinette was (or at least as horrible as Adjmi draws her).

As predictable as the plot and the conventions are, what keeps this production fresh and fast, even for its short running time (90 minutes, without intermission) is Lambert’s ability to play the ins and outs of the stylized notions of 18th Century France and the modern colloquialism scattered throughout the text. Lambert seamlessly incorporates both styles into something of an acting masterclass and we truly buy into her incredulity as things spiral out of control and the revolution takes hold. Another element added by Adjmi (and perhaps one of the script’s saving graces), is a fanciful, choric component that takes the form of a sheep. In this case, the sheep is portrayed by Alec Thibodeau as an albino Amadeus who chews apples and begs to be stroked by the pastorally nostalgic Marie. In due time, the Sheep is a diversion, a confidant, a third voice lending philosophical balance to Marie’s haughty naiveté, and ultimately, the inevitable wolf. The last few moments of the play hurtle headlong toward Adjmi’s point of view and we get a healthy dose of admonition as we hear how America has bastardized its own dream, its own revolution and its own liberty. Marie is defiant until the end, a living symbol even before her demise and she remains quite self-aware for one who has been bred into royalty. “I became the stuff of history,” she remarks, even as she clings desperately to her frail present.

Marie Antoinette is perfect for history buffs and fans of historical fiction, but it’s also a charming way to spend increasingly warmer nights as The Gamm winds up its 30th season. Madeline Lambert and the costuming alone are worth the price of admission, but a strong cast and confident direction by Rachel Walshe seal the deal. Along the way, you may even question your own notions of democracy in these trying days of potential civil unrest and protest, but this is still just pure entertainment. And although we never hear the famous words, with this Marie Antoinette, you can indeed have your cake and eat it, too.

The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre presents David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette through May 31. 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket. Call 401.723.4266 or visit gammtheatre.org for more information. Arrive early – parking is limited.

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