During times of high stress – whether it stems from school, family, friends, work, boys or any other of life’s manifold intricacies – I love to relax by attending plays. Such stories have always been my respite from expected and unexpected bouts of sadness; a comforting ritual to take the place of bedtime stories and night lights. While some theatres are inaccessible due to price (I like to imagine that these places are frequented by old, wealthy women, who are engulfed in fur, smoke cigarillos and have had secret liaisons with at least three oil barons), many possess affordable alternatives for students. Such theatres are places of memory-making; they will always possess an ethereal aura and provoke feelings akin to the first giddy moments of childhood freedom, the deliciousness of a first secret, and the almost symphonic anticipatory glee of a first crush.
Several days ago, I was ecstatic to attend Steppenwolf Theatre’s premiere of David Adjmi’s ‘Marie Antoinette’. Directed by Robert O’Hara, with Alana Arenas in the starring role, ‘Marie Antoinette’ chronicles the short life and death of the young French queen. However, Adjmi and O’Hara’s complex visions, and Arenas’ stellar performance, investigate much more than absolute historicism. The play delves into issues as diverse and intricate as modern celebrity, femininity, race and girlhood.
Much of the action takes place below a ceiling composed of warmly luminescent papier-mâché floral forms – the space reminiscent of a cavernous fever dream. This area is then situated between two green screens that alternate between tightly framed images of sumptuous fabrics, food, jewellery and voyeuristic shots of palace facades. The element of voyeurism is crucial to consider, because the green screen images that enable one to view an image of Versailles and the faint shadows of Marie and Louis living (the outlines of the actors) within this imagined space, tinges the story with TMZ-era schadenfreude. The audience’s pleasure and interest in viewing Marie’s vacillations between negligence of and engagement with the socio-political expectations linked to her role as Queen of France, while at the same time being aware of the French Revolution and Marie’s violent execution, brings to mind the lurid attraction fuelling the industries of celebrity secrets and downfalls.
While the modern prurient fascination with the private details of a celebrity’s personal life is not overtly politicised, it shares many elements with the continued appeal of Marie’s trajectory from Austrian girl to French monarch, to a symbol and scapegoat of public hatred. Though the majority of these celebrity stories do not end with the same degree of violence as Marie’s death, they still engage a spectrum of tragedy. Whether such tragedy stems from an unsettling death after a tumultuous life, or a brutal and unexpected reminder of morality, we never tire of the stories that chronicle the inevitability of a fall after a rise.
The play’s most engaging moments were wordless and silent, except for a bass-heavy musical backdrop. These memorable and powerful sequences consisted of a silent Marie standing passively, close-mouthed and doll-like, as personal attendants poked and prodded her with elaborate hairpieces, gowns and other personal ornamentation. Beautiful clothes, jewellery and shoes served a multitude of functions for young Marie. This fabulously ornate wardrobe simultaneously engineered and cloaked her as an idea, image and symbol much less and much more than the sum of her individual mental, physical and emotional parts. During one of these sequences, I was distracted by the quiet chuckles of an elderly Caucasian couple as another hopelessly intricate blonde hairpiece is placed atop Marie’s/Alana Arenas’ head. Arenas is an African American actress. The couple’s laughter is ignorant, in that they do not know the experience of being doubly bound by your gender and race.
Questions of girlhood and femininity are further complicated by questions of race and what it means to fulfill one’s prescribed roles. For instance, director Robert O’Hara states: “it’s not like you could pretend Marie Antoinette was remotely African American – it feels a bit off. But Marie was a bit off. She was a woman out of her land, having to pretend to be something she was not.” O’Hara’s point is forceful and allows us all to recognise that the roles for which we are formed do not necessarily reflect our own wants, dreams or desires. At the age of 15, Marie was entered into a politically motivated marriage with the young Dauphin of France. She grew up in a strange land, surrounded by no comfort or love. Yet, like all of us, she gains awareness of how these outside forces shaped her, and through this awareness, she rebels and continues to live as both an image of a luxurious queen and an imperfect young woman.
Words: Annette LePique
Image: Yi-Hwa Lin