Marie Antoinette may escape the guillotine, but Philly Bastille celebration meets its end

An executioner, portrayed by Eastern State Penitentiary's Sean Kelly, slices watermelons in half with a guillotine.

An executioner, portrayed by Eastern State Penitentiary's Sean Kelly, slices watermelons in half with a guillotine. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Saturday is Bastille Day, marking the violent revolutionary uprising in 1789 outside a Paris jail holding political prisoners. For years, the day has been celebrated outside the walls of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood with a piece of theatrical comedy performed on top of the historic prison walls.

Besides a real guillotine (demonstrated proof-positive on a watermelon), a condemned Marie Antoinette will face off against a livid Edith Piaf in a bit of anachronistic absurdity.

Also joining the antics this year — for the spectacle — will be Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who apparently has a sense of humor.

“As for participation in something amusing – well, in fact, my campaign was considered amusing by the Fraternal Order of Police, so I see no need to turn away from amusement now,” he said.

Most of the time Krasner’s job is very serious, as in life-and-death serious. Just a few weeks ago he took heat for pursuing life in prison plea deal rather than the death penalty for two men convicted of murdering police officer Robert Wilson in 2015.

The Bastille Day celebration at Eastern State Penitentiary follows the same pattern every year: Antoinette (played by Terry McNally of the nearby London Grill) is led to the top of the prison wall for her execution. Edith Piaf (played in drag by John Jarboe of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret) is eager to let the guillotine fly.

After lots of political satire, jokes about Antoinette’s bodice, and Tastykakes thrown over the wall, the erstwhile queen is ultimately pardoned.

“Every year, Edith Piaf desperately tries to get a little capital punishment into Bastille Day, to really use that guillotine,” said Jarboe, who writes the script for the musical comedy. “But, every year, she learns that capital punishment is wrong, and actually what’s really going to change the world is the redistribution of wealth and resources. Larry Krasner is part of that decision.”

During a telephone interview, Krasner was coy about his participation, insisting that a character named “Larry Krasner” will be part of the performance, which may or may not include him. Nevertheless he seems to have a theatrical itch — and a bone to pick.

“If this event should occur … it would only make sense there would be some discussion of the nature of Eastern State Penitentiary’s history as a prison with good intentions gone bad; the history of mass incarceration kept in Pennsylvania and the United States as good intentions gone bad; the reality that Bastille Day celebrates the release of political prisoners held by tyrants,” said Krasner. “Frankly, unless I’m missing something, we are in a country run by a tyrant.”

This will be the last Bastille Day celebration at Eastern State Penitentiary. The historic prison museum has decided to forgo future celebrations in order to focus its resources on programming about criminal justice reform.

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