‘Marie Antoinette’: Celebrity Lessons for Today

Just go to “Marie Antoinette” — yes, the revolutionary play about the famous, infamous, haunting and haunted Queen of France, now at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre — and try not to connect to something in the way we live today.

You can’t. Are you a French Revolution buff, or love old movies and books about the French Revolution? They’re all here folks—Marie, herself, stopping to snap selfies or pose for pictures, the count who loves her, the rag-tag, murderous mob, the baffled, clueless King Louis XVI, except for Madame Defarge, knitting, Danton in his bath, and “Let Them Eat Cake.” The queen apparently did not say that.

Think this stuff is about the curse of celebrity, way back when? You can see it all, echoes and hints and flagrant bows or curses to the likes of Kim and the Kardashians, Lindsay, J-Lo and all the celebrated nonentities on YouTube.

Think we live in turbulent times? Sure we do: Ukraine, ISIS or ISIL, the Arab Spring, the Middle East Winter, the Syrian debacle. We have beheadings, too. We even have beheadings in the news.

If it were just a stylish, hip and cool, a playful tool for connecting the foibles of a young queen to the always now and new, “Marie Antoinette” would be a witty, if not quite as serious as it might be, sendup, zippy 18th-century fashion show, bloody red carpet of a show.

Except that the play—by the now celebrated playwright Dacvid Adjami (his “Elective Affinities” starred no less a Broadway legend than Zoe Caldwell)—is both less than what it appears to be and, in the end, much more.

The play is more than a bit of a mess at times—but, like a messy traffic accident or an accidental viewing of a reality show, you can’t look away—ever. Because it won’t let you, under the immersive and stylish direction of Yury Urnov, because it pulls you in visually, hypnotically and, finally, emotionally.

Looks- and temperament-wise, the show has the feel of “Marat/Sade” or a tour of a madhouse or the old Bastille cells or a mad-hatter party at Versailles, where I was once on a spring day sitting on a bench where the queen went to get away from it, and it snowed. I mention this because it’s a scene that might have gotten into this play—along with the every curious, inventive Sarah Marshall as a sheep—or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The fact that we accept the presence of a talking sheep at the point of entrance says a lot about the plays powerful pull.

We open with a Project Runway shot—the queen and friends, frolicking and striking Madonna-like poses, clicking, gossiping about the city, politics, fashion, the mob, in a way that Snookie and company might, before descending into a hot tub.

At this point, you should not be surprised that this production is trying to pull you in every which way—there’s a mirror on board, which for audiences front and center should make them feel like voyeurs, watching themselves watching the stage.

There’s a lot to like in the acting—James Konicek as a fiercely frustrated and cruel guard, Joe Isenberg as the soft king, Bradley Foster Smith as the cool and true blue Count Axel Fersen.

But what makes the play is the transcendent performance of Kimberly Gilbert as the queen. It’s a somewhat unexpected star turn because Gilbert has built a longish list of credits with a persona that seems modern, no matter what (she had just completed a role in the reprise of “Stupid F—-ng Bird”). It does here too, and yet she’s found a way to be Marie in her own time. She’s a dreamy teen at first, wistfully wishing to be back in the bucolic Austrian countryside, frustrated with the king, clueless about the mob and her situation.

Somewhere along the way, Gilbert’s Marie, with a kind of heart-breaking empathy, grows in stature, adds weight and bravery to her demeanor, and a dignity peculiarly stuck in her time, a quality sadly lacking in contemporary celebrities.

It’s a bravura performance, building, changing as it goes, until the last cliches, like the last expensive piece of clothing, is gone and what’s left is a woman in her thirties, totally aware of her fate.

“Marie Antoinette” runs though Oct. 12 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20004.

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