Marie Antoinette at the American Reportory Theater

Once upon a time, there was a country in which 1 percent of the people controlled 99 percent of the wealth. Sound familiar?

Wait, mes amies. I’m not talking about twenty-first-century Occupy Wall Street. I’m talking about eighteenth-century France. Versailles, in particular, where a frivolous, pea-brained princess and her equally dimwitted spouse went from fabulous royal phenoms to Public Enemies One and Two.

In David Adjmi’s brilliantly tragicomic Marie Antoinette—now in its world premiere at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the virtuosic direction of Rebecca Taichman—the walls of the Sun King’s glorious palace are tumbling down. Louis XVI cautions his wife not to panic: “We mustn’t lose our heads.” Unfortunate choice of words.

We all know how the story ends, n’est-ce pas?

As expected, Antoinette, played by the exuberant and gifted Brooke Bloom, does meet her maker by the finish of the second act. But the two hours we’ve spent getting to know her have been clever, funny, thought-provoking, and completely entertaining. The production is a delight.

When we meet the young queen, she is eating pastry with her two besties, Yolande de Polignac and Thérèse de Lamballe. They look like three enormous meringues, in pastel poufs and wigs that stand three or four feet high (these outrageous coifs are held up by visible wires, just in case we didn’t realize that the young royal was a puppet). Their banter is hilariously contemporary, and when Marie utters her infamous “Let them eat cake,” it’s not social commentary but parenting advice.

The first act covers several years of life at Versailles. The queen misses her native Austria. She feels like a prisoner—a pampered one, certainly, but not free. Her husband, whom she (no very great brain herself) describes as having the intellect of a 12-year-old, would rather restore old clocks than attempt to restore order in his country. They are childless, much to the annoyance of Marie’s family, because of some problems Louis is having “down there.”

So what does Antoinette do? She goes on a rather elaborate shopping spree of sorts, hiring an architect to build a pastoral little hamlet where she can commune with a flock of perfumed sheep.

One sheep in particular, a life-sized puppet manipulated and voiced by the sonorous and affecting David Greenspan, serves as a sort of oracle for the queen. He cozies up to her, warning her about the future and clueing her in on a very nasty (and quite pornographic) poem that’s circulating. The sheep will show up again in darker days as Marie awaits her execution.

In the second act, we follow the royal family as they are stripped of their thrones, their wealth, and their liberty. Marie, Louis, and their son, the Dauphin (the king, under much duress, finally had a teensy weensy little operation that enabled them to conceive), make one implausible attempt to escape, dressed as cartoonish French farmers. When they try to converse with a couple of actual peasants, they are instantaneously exposed. “Do windmills have a purpose? Or are they just ornamental?”

To her credit, Antoinette does strive to understand what’s happening, although she has neither the education nor the intellect to grasp Rousseau or Voltaire. Delivered up as a diplomatic bride at the age of 14, she recognizes the irony of her plight. “I was built to be this thing and now they are killing me for it.” It’s insights like this that make Marie more than a party girl. She is dumb but likable in Act One. She is dumb but sympathetic in Act Two.

The costumes, like the play’s dialogue, are a mash-up of eighteenth-century fashion and au courant trends. One particularly lively sequence transforms Versailles into a modern-day Fashion Week as Marie and her entourage do their groove thing. Designer Gabriel Berry’s costumes express both the voluptuous days of Versailles and the despair of a lice-infested prison cell. Riccardo Hernandez ingeniously does the same thing with his set of Plexiglas toile, at once both opulent and minimalist.

Marie Antoinette‘s supporting cast is excellent. Steven Rattazi plays Louis as a sit-com king. He is the perfect bumbling foil. Jake Silbermann is dashing as Antoinette’s maybe lover Fersen. And Brian Wiles is decidedly cruel as her jailer. But the evening belongs unequivocally to Bloom.

The actress is onstage practically every minute of the play’s two hours. The role is physically demanding—whether she is wildly dancing to Lady Gaga between costume changes or nervously twitching through the daily stresses of palace life. Bloom reminds me of a young Gilda Radner: sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking. While we can roll our eyes at Antoinette’s excesses and laugh at her silly notions, we do feel for her at the end. She is the epitome of a hapless victim.

In promoting the production, much has been made about our current state of affairs. Interestingly enough, Adjmi wrote the piece in 2006, and was inspired to do so by what he was observing in the Bush fils White House. Adjmi saw George W. as a rather feckless ruler who had inherited his position and was utterly bewildered by it. He may not have worn a three-foot wig, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t strings attached.

Marie Antoinette, a co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre Company, will run through September 29 at American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, MA.

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  • Maryl September 18, 2012 at 10:54 am

    I wish I could get up to Boston before the play closes. Perhaps it will make it to NYC. Fascinating subject for today where there may be parallels as you suggest. Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” (2006) was also revealing of the temperament of the times. “Farewell, My Queen,” a French film released this summer is also on my list. Thanks.