“Marie Antoinette,” written by David Adjmi and directed by Mark Routhier in a charismatic but not quite satisfying production by the NOLA Project, is a tale of two distinct halves.
The first act centers on the days prior to the French Revolution. Marie is a pampered teen queen, like something out of “Clueless” or “Legally Blonde.” Insulated, isolated and indulged by royalty, Marie (Cecile Monteyne) becomes the all-too-obvious metaphor for contemporary airheads placed in a bubble by celebrity and appallingly out of touch with reality.
With his pseudo-historical, anachronistically filled examination of the creation and destruction of the notorious material girl of 18th-century France, Adjmi belongs to a current school of tragic-comedian playwrights who, rather than avoid clichés as a dramatic device, embrace them, and in doing so suggest the cliché is the point.
Adjmi’s campy 2012 script — with its post-punk soundtrack and superficial Valley girl slang — will inevitably draw comparisons to Sofia Coppola’s 2006 lavishly decadent film version. Much of the material ranges from similar to exact.
The plot follows the rise and fall of gossip girl Marie as she bathes in the adoration of her courtiers, frivolously concerns herself with fashion trends and rails at the sexual and political incompetence of husband King Louis XIV (A.J. Allegra).
“Has it ever occurred to you,” Marie snipes at her addled husband, “to run France?”
The production is well served by a strong design effort. Abetted by Dan Zimmer’s sharp lighting design, Bill Walker backdrops his set with an all-too-foretelling row of headless mannequins dressed in the regalia of the day.
Shauna Leone’s inventive costumes hit just the right distorted blend of Sun King excess.
Routhier coaches his attractive cast to downplay the easy Valley Girl self-satire. The first act has some telling moments and some soft-hearted laughs but is only marginally appealing. “Let’s not lose our heads,” quips the king — wink-wink — tongue-in-cheek.
With its incongruous hijinks, one either loves or loathes this brand of play. For some inexplicable reason, they always feel compelled to contain an obligatory bit of nonsensical whimsy. In this case, Adjmi introduces a talking sheep (James Bartelle) who may — or may not — be Marie’s inner consciousness, but compounds our disappointment because it’s her most interesting relationship in the play.
Just as I was longing for someone to give this cast a good pep talk about deepening its emotional connections to these compelling Reign of Terror circumstances, the tone of the second act darkened drastically and the acting fireworks began.
“I was born into it. I was built to be this thing, and now they’re killing me for it,” confesses Marie as a prison guard shears her towering royal coifs. “But you’d do the same. You’d make the same choices I did.” With his star’s shallowness transformed into soulfulness, Adjmi seeks to humanize his portrayal of Marie.
We are asked to sympathize with this innocent, essentially a victim of a merciless cultural order. And despite some wonderful work by Monteyne, this proves too great a leap. We remain unmoved. We never really come to know this character as a real person, merely as an idea.
For a season opening production, “Marie Antoinette” was a brave, if imperfect, choice. Far more impressive than Adjmi’s facile play is the burgeoning potential of the NOLA Project’s ensemble. The acting company is first-rate. With its track record of producing a wide assortment of relevant plays, supported by a solid professional staff dedicated to a laudable mission, the NOLA Project, a sincere asset to the New Orleans theater community, seems poised and capable of making meaningful theater that matters.
Bruce Burgun is a retired professor of theater from Indiana University and a member of the American Theater Critics Association.