This year marks the 225th anniversary of Marie Antoinette’s execution by guillotine, though she continues to live in the public imagination. Not one, but two locally produced plays currently feature her. The excellent first one, “The Revolutionists,” soon ends its run at Theatre Horizon in Norristown; the second, “Marie Antoinette,” recently opened at Curio Theatre in West Philadelphia.
Both shows portray her as a clueless, super-pampered dummy — maybe we take heart, somehow, in categorizing her as a woman with little or no sense. Some of that is justified: As “Marie Antoinette” makes clear, she had about as much disdain for her husband, King Louis XVI, as she had for the legions of French citizens starving outside her gilded walls — if she considered them at all.
But aside from her love of frill, fashion, food and wild spending, “Marie Antoinette” doesn’t take us beneath the surface. There’s a real woman under all that satin finery – there has to be. A child of Austrian royalty, she was only 15 when her family sent her to marry the man who would become King Louis XVI four years later. Three of her four babies didn’t survive their childhoods. Yet the theatrical persona being now invented for her – “Marie Antoinette” was written in 2012 – never really considers her heart and renders her too shallow to have one.
David Adjmi, the American who wrote “Marie Antoinette,” does give us plenty of history to ground the scenes through her life – although the night I saw the play, Curio botched that nice touch by messing up the projections of the history onto the rear of the stage. They were cut off in the middle of sentences as if someone lopped them – hey, folks, we realize this is “Marie Antoinette,” but let’s hold the chopping until the play’s very last seconds.
Adjmi turns Antoinette’s superficiality in the first half of the play into a river of self-pity and denial in the second, when the deposed queen is an imprisoned and bewildered Marie-come-lately to serious introspection. What the play does, it does well, in detailing the aspects of Antoinette’s behavior that made her increasingly despicable to the everyday French. The production by director Brenna Geffers picks up on that aspect, underscoring the entitled attitudes of the queen and her court.
Jennifer Summerfield plays Marie with the controlling, sometimes defiant tone of a fighter, even if she’s battling France’s unstoppable, bloody march into democracy. The portrayal gives the queen a magisterial air, and it makes her something like a tragic figure in her downfall. Brian McCann’s King Louis is a loser – which, history demonstrates, he basically was. In Adjmi’s script, the king is also an overgrown adolescent, which feels like a silly overstatement, but in McCann’s portrayal is at least funny.
The production is handsome – lit by Tim Martin to fit the changing mood of the plot and staged on Paul Kuhn’s impressive structural frame for a royal court, then a prison. Aetna Gallagher’s stately costumes give the women in the cast a regal poise. What’s missing, particularly for Antoinette, is a human depth.
“Marie Antoinette,” produced by Curio Theatre Company, runs through March 10 at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, Baltimore Avenue and 48th Street in West Philadelphia. 215-921-8243 or www.curiotheatre.org.