As the queen of France, Marie Antoinette’s infamous extravagances — the gowns, the jewelry, the sky-high hairdo — became symbols of outrageous excess. Her public image fueled the fires of the French Revolution that ultimately destroyed the monarchy and cost the queen her head. In “Marie Antoinette,” a modernized retelling embraces Her Majesty’s glitz and glam but also attempts to reveal a more complex character behind the hair and make-up.
The NOLA Project’s regional premiere of David Adjmi’s 2012 play, running Sept. 3-20 at NOCCA’s Nims Black Box Theatre, depicts an out-of-touch party girl forced to confront the harsh realities of love, marriage and political strife.
“I think of Marie Antoinette as the first reality star, someone that was famous for being famous,” said A.J. Allegra, artistic director of The NOLA Project. “The play is told through the lens of modern celebrity and our obsession with building our public figures up so we can viciously tear them down.”
Cecile Monteyne (2015 Big Easy Entertainer of the Year) stars as Marie, decked out in over-the-top costumes and wigs. Shielded from the civil unrest that surrounds Versailles, Marie’s primary concerns are fashions, flirtations and fancy chocolates, while her relationship with her husband, King Louis XVI, becomes increasingly strained.
Allegra, who plays Louis XVI, describes his character as “socially awkward, sexually inept and politically in over his head.”
As the revolution creeps closer to their doorstep, Marie makes an effort to rein in her excessive impulses, but she is continually frustrated by the king’s inaction and indecisiveness. Powerless to intervene, Marie must face her fate with resolve.
“Marie Antoinette” was chosen as The NOLA Project’s 2015-16 season opener to launch the company’s theme for the season — “strange sights.” The show is a departure from previous season openers, like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Balm in Gilead,” which were more grounded in realism.
Under the direction of Mark Routhier (who helmed last season’s award-winning production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), “Marie Antoinette” will be performed on a stage built to resemble a giant guillotine. A surreal spectacle of light and sound seeks to emphasize Marie’s devotion to stylishness.
“It’s a very rock-and-roll style play that shows significant moments in her life — from her first ascension to the throne to the final guillotine — in a fast and flashy way,” Allegra said. “I would describe it as modern couture with a sadomasochist edge.”
The challenge of staging such an elaborate production is maintaining the balance of style and substance.
If the show’s sights and sounds overwhelm Marie’s evolution from a one-dimensional figurehead to a fully realized historical figure, then the production risks losing the play’s meaningful examination of her character.
“I think that the play really draws Marie Antoinette not only as an extravagant human being, but also as a human being who is deeply misunderstood,” Allegra said. “The human elements are in the script already. It’s just our job to make sure we don’t forget them in the extravagance of the design.”