From left, Bradley Foster Smith (Axel Fersen), Joe Isenberg (Louis XVI) and Kimberly Gilbert (Marie Antoinette) star in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s “Marie Antoinette. The shows run in Washington, D.C., through Oct. 12. (Stan Barouh)
Marie Antoinette had it all, until she didn’t. Watching her demise is a guilty pleasure at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s season opener “Marie Antoinette.” The Washington, D.C., theater’s modern interpretation of the infamous queen is fresh, funny and biting.
Playwright David Adjmi has created a queen who inspires both contempt and pity. Antoinette (Woolly Company Member Kimberly Gilbert) gorges on cupcakes and French chocolates, but she really craves the inaccessible Linder Torts of her Austrian childhood. An animal lover, Antoinette cannot find the roomful of dogs she owns because the palace is so large. She is married to the immature Louis XVI (a convincing Joe Isenberg) who is more interested in clocks than producing an heir to the throne, which fuels infertility rumors and slut-shaming from her French subjects.
The play is set for the Instagram age: cupcakes, outfit changes, illicit drugs, runway peacocking, paparazzi and hangers on who practically laugh and boo on command. Set designer Misha Kachman has created a gilded cage dipped in pink. Lush pink curtains frame a crystal chandelier, electric green fireplace and nearly wall-sized Andy Warhol-esque portrait of the queen bee.
Antoinette’s blissful ignorance of her impending doom is followed by a grief-stricken reality check in the Second Act. The about-face is smartly reinforced by the transformation of the stage, props, and even cast members.
Kachman, who won a Helen Hayes award for Woolly’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”, morphs the set perfectly from party to revolution. Props that celebrate excess in the First Act become confining in the Second Act.
For example, a bubbly hot tub becomes a prison cell. Woolly Company Member Dawn Ursula deftly plays the roles of Antoinette’s cheeky courtier Yolande de Polignac and the poor farmer Mrs. Sauce. The play would have been better served, though, if Mrs. Sauce was a meatier role.
Adjmi’s script is full of snappy dialogue in Act One. Gilbert delivers her lines with masterful sass, and she is at her best as the spoiled narcissist. Reflecting on her love of fireworks, Antoinette tells Louis XVI, “The night we were married there was a thunderstorm, and they had to cancel the fireworks. It’s been like that ever since.”
The script is more philosophical and darker in Act Two. Antoinette’s captors speak eloquently of Rousseau and the new republic in America, but they also quote their leader Robespierre: “Virtue without terror is impossible.” As the queen faces her final days, Frenchmen who created and espoused the term “terrorists” hold her fate in their hands.
In addition to catching Woolly’s season opener, Antoinette fans should visit Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens. Hillwood, the D.C. home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, has an exhibit of Post’s Cartier jewelry. Fashion photographer Cecil Beaton told “Vanity Fair” that Post was “unsurpassable as Marie Antoinette” when she wore a costume of the queen. A part of the dress and a portrait of Post in the costume are both on display in “Cartier: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Dazzling Gems” through Dec. 31.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., presents “Marie Antoinette” through Oct. 12. Wednesday through Friday performances start at 8 p.m. Saturday performances are at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. while Sunday performances being at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets start at $35, with discounts available for first responders and active U.S. military personnel, spouses and veterans. Patrons who are 30-years-old and younger may purchase Section B tickets for $20.For more information call 202-393-3939.
Megan Kuhn is a financial literacy advocate by day and a theater fan
by night. One of her favorite possessions is the red jacket from “Dead
Man’s Cell Phone” that she purchased at a costume sale at Woolly