David Adjmi rebuilds the queen of "let them eat cake" for a low-carb, reality-TV era.
I can recall reading reviews of Adjmi’s irreverent take on the fashionable and doomed young queen of France upon its debuts in other cities a few years back; most of those I read couldn’t resist comparing Adjmi’s version, and its modern sense of vernacular, to the 2006 Sofia Coppola film of the same name and its own modern-rock sensibility. I suspect many Chicago reviewers will bring up the Coppola version as well, and I’m no exception—if only to say that I never saw it and thus can’t make a direct comparison. (Where do my fellow theater critics find all this time for watching movies, anyway?)
I also remember those East Coast reviews to have found Adjmi’s version of Marie, as an all-too-21st-century model of spoiled rich girl who nonetheless finds some ultimate dignity in the very fact of being remembered, rather slight and wanting. I can’t make a direct comparison to those earlier editions of the play any more than I can to Kirsten Dunst’s performance, but I can only guess that the other productions lacked the impressive style and muscle of Robert O’Hara’s production at Steppenwolf, featuring a smashing lead performance by Alana Arenas.
Adjmi—a rising New York playwright receiving his first major production in Chicago—fashions his Marie as a bit of a socialite philosopher, spending only the outrageous amounts of money she’s been raised to spend as someone who was bred to be a geopolitical transaction, but just self-aware enough to say things like, “Sometimes I feel like a game that other people play, but without me.”
Arenas, an actor I’ve admired since seeing her as Pecola Breedlove in a Steppenwolf for Young Adults staging of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye almost a decade ago, spends so much time at Steppenwolf as a diligent, dependable ensemble member that it’s a delight to see her own a show like this. She’s equally brainy and grounded enough to make her character’s royal flightiness as endearing as it is eye-rolling.
And indeed, O’Hara’s staging, Clint Ramos’s mirror-floor runway set design and the exquisitely imagined and constructed costumes by Dede M. Ayite and wigs and makeup by Dave Bova make this a truly Fashion Week–worthy production throughout the first act, with projection designer Jeff Sugg’s lush video title cards punctuating Marie’s onstage costume changes. (The role her previously silent lead dresser later takes on as the revolution arrives is an inspired touch.)
The supporting cast is excellent as well, from Tamberla Perry and Ericka Ratcliff’s meticulous turns as Marie’s courtesans, to Tim Hopper’s take on Louis XVI as a kind of Fred Armisen-y ineffectual, to Alan Wilder’s deliciously game embodiment of a high-fashion sheep.
If the production falters at all, it’s in a slight over-reliance on video captions to elide big historical moments (though I felt little difficulty following the plot, despite not having revisited the history since college). But that’s in keeping with the stylicious aesthetic O’Hara employs, and Arenas’s strenuous performance keeps us rolling with the changes in tone, all the way up through Marie’s somewhat limited, and too late, awakening. It’s a portrayal worth pledging allegiance to.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By David Adjmi. With Alana Arenas, Matthew Abraham, Tim Frank, Keith D. Gallagher, Tim Hopper, Mark Page, Tamberla Perry, Ericka Ratcliff, Ariel Shafir, Alan Wilder. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.