REVIEW: Woolly’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ a reminder of over consumption in a modern age.

Gavin Lawrence and Kimberly Gilbert (Photo by Stan Barouh)

Gavin Lawrence and Kimberly Gilbert (Photo by Stan Barouh)

We are constantly reminded that Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake,” but it is an apt phrase that emphasizes that she and her husband, Louie XVI, like the equally ill-fated Romanovs, lived a life of feckless isolation. It is difficult to feel any sympathy for what they brought upon themselves. Woolly Mammoth’s production of David Adjmi’s oddly unbalanced “Marie Antoinette” shifts between the absurd and the serious.

In the first half of the production, Marie and her ladies fuss about the stage like 18th-century “valley girls” in towering powdered wigs, wearing elaborate dresses and even strip down to swim suits with Kimberly Gilbert (Marie) in a bikini. They are the empty, frivolous people we see in the pages of People Magazine or on television’s Entertainment Tonight. Gilbert, however, gives a sensitive performance playing the silly, unconsciously extravagant queen in the first act and the pathetic queen losing her husband and son on her way to her execution in the second.

Under the direction of Yury Urnov, Marie and her ladies frolic among vibrant pinks and greens in the first act. Everything is exaggerated with cupcakes and drinking cups designed around Marie’s breasts. It is all done in a comedic atmosphere that emphasizes a life of pleasure that is callously indifferent to the world outside the palace. These are people lost in the delusion of wealth and power, dancing — in the case of Marie and Louis XVI — on their way to the guillotine. A shallow pool, however, seems an unnecessary addition by set designer Misha Kachman.

Everything in the first act overemphasizes the royal family’s stupidity in ignoring the growing protests of peasants outside the castle. It is reminiscent of a Monty Python skit. In a way Adjmi and Urnov keep emphasizing the timelessness of haves over have-nots until you want to shout, “I get it. I get it.”

Maybe that’s why the grim second act with the imprisoned Marie and her son, the Dauphin, is such an unsettling jolt. From the amusing extravagance of the first act to the painfully sad menace of the second, you feel as though you have walked into a different play, and in a way, Marie has walked into a situation she neither understands nor ever believed could happen to her.

One highlight in both acts is the incomparable Sarah Marshall as a Sheep. In the first act, she carries a sheep’s head on a pole and draws laughter with her intense, mockingly expressive face. In the second act, a sheep’s skull replaces the head, and it’s no longer funny. She is grim reality. In essence, she is a Greek chorus expounding a tragic wisdom that escapes the pampered French royalty.

The show’s cast is smart and competent, often better than the script. Joe Isenberg as the clueless Louis XVI, sensitively portrays a version of an inept, unprepared monarch content to play with his clocks while the impoverished peasants begin to rise up and eventually take him to the Bastille.

In “Marie Antoinette” Adjmi forces the knowledge that Marie is not uniquely irresponsible; she is simply someone lost in the self-indulgence created by excessive wealth and absolute power. It is a fate that echoes throughout history. There have been and will always be more Marie Antoinettes.

Marie Antoinette” continues through Oct. 12, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW. Tickets start at $35 and are available at 202-393-3939 and online here.

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