To enter the University of Pittsburgh’s production of Marie Antoinette in the Cathedral of Learning’s Studio Theater is to be confronted. Actors dressed alternately as nobles or revolutionaries either welcome you to the party as you enter or congratulate you on being on the right side of history, respectively. Accompanying them are at least a half dozen maps and pieces of French art, all plastered by bright red text stylized as graffiti. “Make France Great Again,” reads one, but all pieces more or less emphasize that the tagger in question is not, in fact, With Her.
The Her in question is Marie Antoinette, the eponymous lead character in David Adjmi’s re-contextualization of history’s most extravagant It Girl. Few historical figures are quite as easily relegated to the role of cautionary morality tale as the former Queen of France, who spent an inordinate amount of money on pointless displays of excess while her ruled class, steeped in the dregs of poverty, plotted to behead her for it.
Adjmi’s script continues a conversation begun by Soffia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, which explored Antoinette’s human qualities through an art-punk lens. Adjmi takes quite literally an identical tactic by also mismatching royalty and punk, except where Coppola is an artist working in implication, Adjmi Jackson Pollock-s the stage with angry, metaphoric talking sheep, penis jokes, and a sharp, contemporary style of dialogue that fits somewhere in the gulf between Curb Your Enthusiasm realism as absurdism and the forceful manipulation of history of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
It’s interesting, then, that Pitt’s production of Adjmi’s already escalated work is propelled by an even further need to escalate. First there is the costume design, which features so many colors. KJ Gilmer has given Antoinette a series of wigs in every color of the rainbow, and abandoned the doily-ed wardrobe of the era for a kaleidoscopic sense of fashion better fitting a Nicki Minaj concert than a ballroom dance. The original production of this show also featured wild statements of coloring book fashion, but in lieu of a mainstage budget Pitt’s production has instead opted for a wider, stranger variety of visual design which works wonders, especially in the play’s early goings.
The cast, as directed by Le’Mil Eiland, are primarily wealthy, hapless narcissists made brutal by the power of their indifference. The show feels in so many ways to be like a circus, or better yet, a sitcom from hell. The implication is that, for both King Louis the 16th and Anotinette, life is a ridiculous joke. Alexis Primus plays Antoinette as a woman intellectually hardened by privilege; she has every material thing a person could want for, yet has so precious little to live for. Antoinette’s is a loveless life without purpose. Primus imbues Antoinette with an innate desperation for some missing, essential piece of humanity, and no scene ends without our acute awareness of her listless existence.
Adam Nie’s Louis the 16th, meanwhile, is a perfect foil of spineless power and privilege. Nie is more classically comedic, and as such is a greater instigator of satire in performance. In a way, Louis is no less a victim of a fated heritage than Antoinette, but he’s also dramatically less equipped to confront himself. Very nearly all successful moments of levity are placed on Nie’s shoulders – that is, save for the surreal physical humor of Meg McGill, who appears as a sheep-human manifestation of Antoinette’s inner dialogue.
For both Antoinette and Louis, Leadership is an annoying obligation to be dismissed for other, better things, like receiving one-sided flatteries at a dinner party or indulging a new hobby. The play’s breezy enough first act does nothing if not cement this in our minds; the people can wait.
Except, no they can’t. By the play’s intermission, Antoinette’s inevitable trudge to the guillotine is well underway, as Louis and Antoinette are taken hostage by a series of furious rebels (Joe McHugh and Zach Fullerton). Orders are spit at our protagonist in the staccato rhythm of a Taken-era Liam Neeson interrogation scene. It’s here that the production’s erratic sense of tension is at its greatest imbalance. Generally, Eiland explodes whatever tension is present in a given conflict, meaning the cast is frequently intense in their hostilities towards one another. It all feels somewhat in character given the contemporary absurdism of the play’s first act, but once we’re able to find so little to contrast as far as volume between conflicts that happen in relative comfort versus conflicts that happen under extreme duress, Marie Antoinette starts to feel too exhausting. The fact that we spend so much time during the final act with so little for Antoinette to do other than succumb to despair deeply compounds the problem.
Regardless, the final act sees Marie Antoinette embrace the surreal. Several clever uses of stage design, especially one sequence that utilizes the presence of the audience to great effect, are some of the production’s brightest highlights. Pitt’s latest is no salve to soothe the pain apparent in your latest Twitter thread, but it is at least a comforting reminder that privilege is ultimately not impenetrable.
Marie Antoinette runs at the University of Pittsburgh through February 25. For tickets and more information, click here.