Through Nov. 17 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, corner of Chapel and York streets, New Haven. (203) 432-1234, yalerep.org
Last time playwright David Adjmi and director Rebecca Taichman got together at the Yale Rep, for The Evildoers in 2008, they turned Edward Albee-esque relationship dramas on their ear by adding heaping portions of violent spectacle and eye-popping visual effects to the accustomed bickering and back-biting of that chatty genre.
With the hip radical history play Marie Antoinette, Adjmi and Taichman try the same visual trickery on biodramas, with spectacular results. The script hits all the right strident notes in connecting the reign of the oblivious and insensitive queen (Marin Ireland) and her laughable husband Louis XVI (Steven Rattazzi, evoking James Tolkan's neurotic Napoleon from Woody Allen's Love and Death) with the powermongering political money culture of our own time and place. But the most arresting points are made visually. Without ever stooping to the obvious image of a guillotine, this is a play of short sharp shocks and cutting remarks, punctuating the pomposity of the royal court with an everpresent atmosphere of menace, madness and just plain out-of-it spaciness.
The French Revolution arrives not through a lot of chatter but with a seismic scenic effect that blots out the stage and changes the whole complexion of the play in an instant. Adjmi's intense, controlled writing is built to ride over rocky terrain, and in settings of abject degradation and despair he is still able to insert enlightening dialogues about romance, beauty and politics.
He's even able to do it when one of the speakers is a sheep.
Sheep: The people are very angry.
Marie: Oh, they're always angry, that's not a barometer of anything.
Sheep: They're starving, and they're overtaxed.
Marie: That's Louis' problem, he's working on it.
Marie Antoinette was written before The Evildoers, and before such current class-oriented spectacles as the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney or the senatorial aspirations of Linda McMahon. The play was developed years ago at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Sundance Institute Residency at the Public Theatre in New York, but is only now receiving its world premiere thanks to this co-production of the Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre. It played at the ART in September. Yale is blessed to have it during the climax of the election season.
But the play isn't just a political cartoon. As a portrait of a disaffected monarch, it's in keeping with Sophia Coppola's 2006 film Marie Antoinette, which the filmmaker wrote herself based on scholarship by Antonia Fraser. Both Coppola and Adjmi make Marie Antoinette spoiled, petulant and oblivious in a manner intended to resemble the misunderstood American youth of today. At the Rep, Marin Ireland gives the character a purposefully irritating voice that combines the sass of a Valley Girl/princess with the nasal tones of Gilda Radner, Judy Holliday or Jean Hagen.
But again, it's the visuals that really sell the image. The show's large cast is mainly there so they can be bossed about. They wear black while Marie preens like a peacock.
A more intimate, or more stark, production would not pack the same message. You need to see the people to understand how the people are downtrodden. Ultimately, this is not as much a play about Marie Antoinette the person as it is about what she represented. She is undoubtedly the lead player, but other perspectives are clearly heard. French philosophers are mentioned more often than monarchs. There's a genuine sense of an entire culture rethinking what its meaning and purpose is.
High art on all levels, from coarse to cosmic, this is the kind of show that makes you appreciate the Yale Rep as more than a theater. The Rep joins the Center for British Art and the Yale Art Gallery as a third modern art institution on the block. It joins the Occupy movement and local community uprisings like New Haven Rising as a spirited voice of the people. It promotes a vital reinterpretation of stuffy old history, as do the best Yale liberal arts classes.
It takes an old joke about an insensitive ruler and extends it into a frantically entertaining, fierce and fresh social satire. Revolutionary.