At the very start of the American Repertory Theatre's New England premiere of David Adjmi's "Marie Antoinette" the queen herself, played by Brooke Bloom, sits flanked by two noble companions. All three are equipped with fantastically high wigs; all three are attired in pastel-hued dresses (just one of costume designer Gabriel Berry's many triumphs here). They are dainty, and even delectable, to behold; they look like nothing so much as a neatly packaged assortment of macaroons, and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez has created a perfect little jewel box to contain their rarefied and often trivial existence.
Then they begin speaking Adjmi's wildly inventive, anachronistic dialogue, and we realize we're not in for any staid and formal period piece. Adjmi has prepared an entertainment that reaches a high level of sophistication, yes, but it's sophistication of a decidedly contemporary sort.
Bloom's Marie Antoinette is a complex creature. Hardly the villain she's made out to be by pamphleteering revolutionaries or gossip mongers, Marie may be given to excess and ignorance, but it's not out of malice. "Let them eat cake?" Yes, she says it--in the course of encouraging a mother not to be too strict with her children.
Marie is something of a coddled child herself. She's also a foreigner in an adopted homeland that has accepted her uneasily at best, and she's a dissatisfied wife. Bloom ties all these things together in her lively and nuanced performance. Her Marie is a bundle of frustrated energy with few constructive outlets; Bloom's right leg jitters like a sewing machine, and her rapid fire delivery swings between clipped wit and guileless naïveté.
Marie's husband, King Louis XVI (Steven Rattazzi), is as childish as she is, but between the two of them it's Marie who realizes it. She complains that he's "like a twelve year old," incapable of attending to his duties as head of state, partly because the responsibility frightens and overwhelms him. One of his kingly duties is to produce an heir to the crown; but Louis, afflicted by a problem "down there," is terrified of the surgical correction he'd need to be able to impregnate Marie.
Meantime, of course, it's Marie who bears the slanders uttered by an increasingly restless and hostile France. Marie is said to be a former prostitute; a nymphomaniac; a lesbian. Angrily, Marie wishes that the slurs would at least be consistent. When she encounters a talking sheep who provides her with a scroll on which an obscene poem is written, we might well start to wonder whether Marie has gone right around the bend--but with the rest of the world seemingly collapsing into madness, what's a talking sheep? (The sheep are gorgeous, by the way, and a credit to puppet designer Matt Acheson.)
"Marie Antoinette" might fairly draw comparisons to the "Occupy" movement and the current debate over the so-called "one percent," the tiny fraction of the wealthiest Americans who own nearly all the nation's wealth. But this reading of the play, as directed by Rebecca Taichman, offers just as much of a critique of the culture of celebrity as it does the worship of wealth; anthems by Lady Gaga and Cher punctuate the show, and a mirror ball lends the proceedings an air of sparkly celebration. Scantily dressed servants gyrate at one point; a man done up in ladylike finery appears in the midst of one musical interlude, and trays of treats are wheeled around for tea-time. In stark contrast, there are several turns and transitions that strike a dramatically different tone, as when a heap of dirt suddenly showers onto the stage (it's actually bits of cork), or our friend the talking sheep turns out to be a wolf at heart.
But other striking contrasts come on more gradually. As the French Revolution progresses and Marie is stripped of her layers of finery, the mental frills and frippery also disappear. In time, Marie is pondering the philosophy of Voltaire and the physics of Isaac Newton. She's not mentally prepared to take on the ideas of the Enlightenment, but that doesn't mean she has no yearning to be enlightened herself.
In this, there's a deeper, more subversive, and more substantive underlying message to "Marie Antoinette" than mere reference to widespread economic discontent and the childish follies of the entitled elite. Being smart matters in a large, deep, historical sense; dressing smartly has no meaning once the ball is over. If there's an election-year message for us in Adjmi's prickly, funny, surreal play, that would have to be it.
"Marie Antoinette" plays through September 29 at the ART’s Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Harvard Square, in Cambridge.
Tickets cost $25 and up, and may be purchased online at www.AmericanRepertoryTheatre.org or via phone at 617-547-8300. Group rates are available.
For the performance schedule and other information please visit http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/marie-antoinette