In Marie Antoinette, playwright David Adjmi has the doomed queen of France talking like a spoiled 21st-century diva (“I’m not dying in the fucking Tuileries, that’s for fucking sure”). Steppenwolf Theatre Company makes certain she looks like one, too, outfitting star Alana Arenas in trashy-couture gowns and outlandish wigs, and putting her on a mirrored set recalling a fashion runway as much as the halls of Versailles.
But it isn’t all petit fours and temper tantrums. As the ancien régime gives way to revolution, Arenas’s Marie awakens to the fact that she’s trapped by history, even as she remains fundamentally incapable of saving herself from the chopping block. It’s a commanding yet vulnerable performance that manages to smash together the haughty, “let-them-eat-cake” Marie of tradition with the cossetted, misunderstood teen of Sofia Coppola’s 2006 biopic.
We caught up with Arenas to talk about the role and why Marie Antoinette continues to fascinate us more than 200 years after her death.
Though the subject of the play is historical, both the script and the production are ultra-modern and very aware of current pop culture. What are the benefits of telling Marie Antoinette’s story in such a contemporary—albeit exaggerated—way?
It invites us to look at how we have some of these same things going on today. She was essentially indicted by public opinion, and I feel like that happens with some of our pop stars. I see news stories where somebody has made a mistake, and it becomes such huge news and it becomes very easy to criticize people and do away with them, but think about what type of mercy you would want afforded to you if you were in their shoes.
I don’t want to say that she shouldn’t take ownership for her role in what happened. But I also think that we as the general public can’t be naïve enough to think that just because somebody’s larger than life, they’re able to escape the traps of being a human being.
In your performance, Marie’s not exactly likable, but there’s definitely something poignant about her situation. How did you find a balance between satirizing her and treating her with sympathy?
I think there’s a larger question here. We vastly disagree in modern society—Republicans don’t agree with Democrats, etc. and etc. What fascinates me is that we can take such deep offense to somebody, but what we don’t do is spend time trying to understand how the person arrived at their ideas. I feel like there’s a lesson in that. When you start to see what constructed a person’s ideas, then you start to have a little bit more compassion.
So rather than judging the fact that Marie believes in monarchy and thinks it’s her divine right—rather than judging the character for that and playing that, you have to accept it. If I just go, “That’s what you believe, that’s crazy, I’m done,” then there’s no further dialogue.
That’s one of the reasons we go to the theater, isn’t it? To encounter a point of view that’s different from ours?
That’s something that really interests me about theater: the opportunity to really figure out how somebody arrives at something. Like, “How did you get to THAT?”
Appearances and surfaces seem to be unusually important to this character. How much do the design elements—the costumes and the wigs and the mirrored runway—influence your performance?
She really is a person who enjoys glitz and glam. They’re true to her and they’re important to the construction of her identity and what it means to be divinely appointed royalty. There’s something in her that enjoys performance. Her problems are from what it demands of her.
At the end of the play, just before her execution, Marie gives a speech projecting her enduring fame. Why do you personally think she remains such an object of fascination all these years later?
People have a very love-hate relationship with lavishness. There are some people who are like, “I cannot wait to see what happens on that red carpet! Oh my God, did you see the jewels, rented though they be?” Robert [O’Hara, the show’s director] said to me something that I thought was so true. He said, “What is the fun of being a queen if you don’t get to have all of the stuff?” So I wonder if that has to do with it: seeing somebody who decided to do everything to the hilt.
And for me personally, I’m drawn to somebody who’s a little bit defiant when it comes to convention. I have respect for people who can say, “This is what I can do, and this is what I can’t do, and I’m not sorry for however it lets down your expectations.”
Marie Antoinette runs through May 10 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. For more information, go to steppenwolf.org.