At Rep, a nuanced ‘Antoinette’

“America is a doomed experiment,” declares Marie Antoinette in a new play at the Yale Repertory Theatre by award winning playwright David Adjmi.

The show, which opened at the Rep on Oct. 26 and will run through Nov. 17, creates an intimate psychological portrait of the French queen, while using her narrative to explore questions about the nature of democracy, sovereignty and power, said director Rebecca Taichman DRA ’01. The show is both a world premiere and the first ever co-production between the Yale Rep and Harvard’s American Repertory Theater, where it ran from Sept. 1 to Sept. 29 before coming to New Haven. In moving to New Haven, however, the play has adjusted to reflect more consistently its dark themes.

While based in historical fact, Adjmi said “Marie Antoinette” is an intensely personal interpretation of the title character. Because the play’s events unfold entirely through the eyes of Antoinette, the play changes in tone, genre and style as she goes through “psychic shifts,” Adjmi explained. “Antoinette” has also changed significantly since its run in Cambridge, Taichman said, explaining that the production team treated Yale’s show as a chance to look at the play anew rather than as a mere continuation of the A.R.T.’s production.

“We changed really 50 percent of the show,” Taichman said. “There was such a sense of dynamism … in terms of people completely mining it and looking at it with fresh eyes.”

While the Rep’s production retained nearly the entire cast of the original, actress Marin Ireland replaced Brooke Bloom in the title role. The change in leading lady altered the show’s blocking — the way actors move within the performance space — to realign with the “very different instincts” Ireland brought to the show, Adjmi said.

The radical difference in venue at Yale also gives the Rep’s production a different feel, said actress Hannah Cabell, who plays the roles of Yolande de Polignac and Mrs. Sauce. At the A.R.T., the team performed in a house with 1,200 seats rather than the Yale Rep’s 487, making audiences at the Rep feel that they were seeing a “spectacle” while remaining removed from what was happening onstage, she said.

“There they were watching a doll house … [At the Yale Rep] they seem to feel much more involved in the play, like they’re inside the doll house with us,” Cabell said.

Adjmi explained that the team also made significant, more intentional adjustments to the staging of the show, both to streamline the storytelling and to change subtly the tone of the story being told. The largest of these changes was the elimination of a “raucous, ribald” dance number featuring Marie and her courtiers dancing in bikinis and feather headdresses to contemporary pop music, said actor David Greenspan, who plays the sheep.

This change contributed to an overall effort to humanize characters who had seemed “much more cartoony” at the A.R.T. and to emphasize the show’s darker, human story, Taichman said. At the A.R.T., Antoinette went through several prolonged, performative costume changes that made her “seem very party-girlish in a very obvious way,” Adjmi said. Now the number of onstage costume changes has been pared down, and the ones that remain are performed with feverish rapidity.

Speeding up the show’s pacing helps to portray Antoinette’s “sense of dislocation, the speed with which she has to invent herself over and over again,” Adjmi explained. Cabell agreed that this modification intensifies the experience of seeing the play.

“It doesn’t let you off the train once you’re on it,” she said. “The momentum starts, and it just keeps driving.”

In eliminating some emphasis on Antoinette’s frivolity, the Yale production “trusts the play a little bit more to do its own work,” Taichman said, adding that this tonal shift brings the show’s two acts together into “a coherent event.” Antoinette’s feeling of “asphyxiation” is what forms the emotional core of the show, she said.

“[The Yale production] has strains of sadness in it earlier now than it did before,” Taichman said.

Though “Antoinette” is an exploration of freedom in all its kinds, ranging from emotional and political to “wild, Dionysian” freedom, the show is ultimately about the queen’s own entrapment in the face of so many forces she cannot control, Adjmi said.

In the course of the play Antoinette declares that people are not sovereign and fundamentally unable to govern themselves, a claim that is particularly resonant this election season, Taichman said.

“I was really thinking about the efficacy of democracy,” Adjmi said. “It’s a question I still have.”

Adjmi explained that the play is struggling to forge a relationship between “personal … existential” freedom and the kind of freedom possible within the political structures it examines.

The Yale production in particular is running right alongside the lead up and immediate aftermath of tomorrow’s election, which Greenspan said makes the play’s political themes especially resonant with audiences.

Adjmi wrote the play in 2007 before the “Occupy Wall Street” movement emerged. But audiences viewing the show this year already have “a really concrete vocabulary for this idea of the 99 percent and the one percent,” Taichman said. “It’s a lens through which people can watch it … we’re participating in a larger dialogue.”

Taichman added that she hopes the play spurs conversation as people decide how to vote tomorrow.

Rebecca Taichman staged the world premiere of Adjmi’s play “The Evildoers” at the Yale Rep in 2008.

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