Dobama Theatre’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ promises cake, provides crumbs
By Bob Abelman
Had psychotherapy been around in the late 18th century, Sigmund Freud would have had a field-day with fellow Austrian Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, better known as Marie Antoinette.
One of 16 children and the eighth daughter and second youngest child of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa, archduchess of Austria and queen of Hungary and Bohemia, Marie had issues.
She was afraid of her forbidding mother and intimidated by her oldest brother.
She was functionally illiterate though very well versed in the empty enterprise of self-indulgence.
She was culturally and socially isolated prior to being sent off as a 14-year-old to wed Louis-Auguste, the heir to the throne of France, and she was even lonelier during her time as queen.
Which wasn’t very long. Marie was famously imprisoned and beheaded during the French Revolution at the age of 37.
In “Marie Antoinette,” first performed in 2012 and on stage at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, playwright David Adjmi does Freud’s work by bringing to the surface all that ails Marie. And he uses the therapist’s dialogue-driven clinical methodology to do so.
We overhear Marie (Carly Germany) sharing gossip and fashion tips with her ladies-in-waiting (Lara Mielcarek and Rachel Lee Kolis), disclosing Louis XVI’s failings as a leader with her brother Joseph (Robert Hunter), and discussing the king’s failings as a lover with a dashing courtier (Joe Pine). We eavesdrop on her conversations with a sardonic sheep (Abraham Adams), as she learns about the angry world outside her gilded cage.
As does this play, recent works by other playwrights have re-envisioned and stylistically brought into the modern era historical figures. A young Andrew Jackson is portrayed as a radical rock and roller in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and founding father Alexander Hamilton is a rapper in “Hamilton.” Adjmi depicts Marie Antoinette as the poster child for the extravagant consumerism, outlandish sense of entitlement, and astounding superficiality displayed by today’s rich and famous 1-percenters.
When revolutionaries outside her gate shout “Fraternite,” the clueless Marie hears “fraternity party.”
Adjmi’s characters speak in contemporary vernacular, wear lavish period costuming (courtesy of Tesia Dugan Benson) that has pop fashion flair, and have the same soullessness and unchecked appetites common in characters in Adjmi’s other plays, including “Stunning,” “Elective Affinities,” and “3C.”
While the musicals “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Hamilton” fill their stages with a raucous score and elaborate choreography, “Marie Antoinette” director Nathan Motta similarly saturates Dobama’s performance space. But he does so with wonderful projections of animated imagery (designed by Mike Tutaj), fashion model runway lighting (designed by Marcus Dana), and a rich soundtrack (designed by Richard Ingraham) between scenes.
All this marvelously embellishes the many moods of and dramatic moments in this play, and complements the purposefully minimalistic but still-effective exhibition of opulence (designed by Ben Needham) of the palaces at Versailles and Paris.
The downside of this dynamic display of sight and sound is the void it leaves in its absence. Despite terrific performances by every actor — particularly Dan Hendrock as the incessantly whining King and Germany as the easily distracted and, later, terribly distraught Marie — the script is pale and plods along when left to its own devices.
Worse, the play is sometimes aimless and unsure of what it wants to say. After two hours of putting Marie on the therapist’s couch, “Marie Antoinette” fails to provide the necessary Freudian insight to turn smart dialogue and awesome production values into something more meaningful.
When watching “Marie Antoinette,” it’s as if the playwright wanted the audience to eat cake but only provided handfuls of delectable but ultimately unsatisfying breadcrumbs. CV
WHAT: “Marie Antoinette”
WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
WHEN: Through May 22
TICKETS & INFO: $10-$28. Call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org.
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow him at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 24, 2016.
Lead image: Lara Mielcarek, from left, as Polignac, Carly Germany as Marie Antoinette, and Rachel Kolis as Lamballe. PHOTO | Steve Wagner Photography