Review: Marie Antoinette at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago

Review: Marie Antoinette at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago
(left to right) Ericka Ratcliff; Tamberla Perry and Alana Arenas in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of "Marie Antoinette." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Marie Antoinette, perhaps best known for being beheaded or as the “teen queen,” opened Sunday at Steppenwolf Theatre on the Upstairs Stage.

The stranger than fiction story of the once beloved celebrity royal–who had it all until she lost her head–is a story for the ages. The 1700’s Marie was a confection created by a society that valued extravagance and artifice.

In 2015, we are still putting our celebrities on pedestals then taking a sick pleasure, not unlike watching a car wreck, as they fall.  Think Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton and to some extent Tiger Woods.

The real life Marie Antoinette (November 2, 1755 to October, 16, 1793) was born an Archduchess of Austria, she became a Dauphine of France at the tender age of 14 then at age 19 became the Queen of France and Navarre (1774 to 1792).

Although her life span was a short 37-years, she lives on and on in books, movies and the theater. It seems we just can’t get enough of the spoiled little rich girl who gets her comeuppance.

A big deal back in 1938 was the black and white film starring Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette with a cast of 152, numerous horses and massive production scenes.

An award-winning 2006 film with Kirsten Dunst playing Marie, directed by Sofia Coppola, used an even larger cast and was filmed, in large part, at Versailles.

In contrast, the Steppenwolf production uses a small stage and less then ten actors to tell the story.

The David Adjmi production, currently running at Steppenwolf, has been in the works since 2007.

Adjmi’s text has been mounted several times to mixed reviews including two productions in 2012, one at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts and another at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2013 it played to sell out audiences at the 73-seat Soho Rep in New York.

In David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, directed in Chicago by Robert O’Hara, the story unfolds beautifully, smoothly and, at times, humorously as it zigs and zags between the past and the present finding many parallels between then and now.

We view the action through Marie’s lens seeing world as she sees it.

Alana Arenas (Marie Antoinette); Tim Hopper is King Louis XVI. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Alana Arenas (Marie Antoinette); Tim Hopper is King Louis XVI. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

In Act I, Marie, played by Alana Arenas, is on stage almost constantly–as she is throughout the production.  She plays the queen seamlessly with self-possession and poise.  She complains, she nibbles on macaroons, constantly changes clothes, flirts and eases her boredom by spending vasts sums of money.

Her marriage to the clueless Louis XVI ((Tim Hopper) comes under increasing pressure and allegations as it has failed to produce an heir for seven years.

Act II is far more serious and political with the situation becoming darker as France turns against the royals. With the revolution in full force the couple and their family must flee–which, of course, does not turn out well.

In addition to Arenas and Hopper, the talented cast features ensemble member Alan Wilder–as a sheep;  along with the adorable Matthew Abraham as Dauphin, Tim Frank, Keith D. Gallagher, Mark Page (alternates as Dauphin), Tamberla Perry, Ericka Ratcliff and Ariel Shafir.

The design team including Clint Ramos (scenic design), Dede Ayite (costume design), Dave Bova (hair and wig design), Japhy Weideman (lighting design), Lindsay Jones (sound and composition) and Jeff Sugg (projection design) has created a visual masterpiece with a fairytale-like setting that features a mirrored stage reflecting large flowers above and the action on stage.

The audience is seated on the north and south sides of the stage while two large video screens one on the east wall and and another on the west wall showcase Versailles and supplement the story throughout the play.

If you’re looking for a serious historical narrative of Marie Antoinette’s life this may not be for you. However, if you are able to sit back, let loose and go with it, you’re in for a treat.

Tickets and information:

When: Now through May 10, 2015

Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Tickets:  $20 – $82, available by calling 312-335-1650 or online.  20 for $20: twenty $20 tickets are available through Audience Services beginning at 11 a.m. on the day of each performance (1 p.m. for Sunday performances).

Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission. In addition, a free post-show discussion is offered after every performance in the Subscription Season.

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)

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