In the Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of “Marie Antoinette,” revolutionary France serves as proxy for America’s current social and economic climate. Marie, in her heavy jewels and towering wigs, is a satirization of the one percent: her life is full of servants and chocolate, yet she won’t stop traipsing around her castle, endlessly and nasally bemoaning the pressures of life in the public sphere, even as her subjects face starvation and disease.
David Adjmi’s script skewers Marie for having lost all touch with reality, to great comic effect. One scene finds her on a jaunt around the castle grounds in a delicate off-white dress and bonnet, sipping “peasanty” tea with a girlfriend; The two women have ventured outside to visit the royal sheep — Marie’s absurdly romantic idea of getting “back to nature.” Later in the play, Marie meets actual peasants — the 99 percent — who speak in Southern accents and say things like “howdy.” She asks what they do for a living. They are shopkeepers. Marie, clouded by her exotic fantasy of poverty, misguidedly asks if they find this job “spiritually nourishing.”
This is successful satire by the metric of exposing the stupidities of a specific target society. The play knows its audience — liberal, affluent people from Yale, Boston and New York City — and traffics in our cultural vocabulary, recasting the French queen as a Valley Girl straight out of “Clueless” to garner some well-earned laughs.
A great satire, however, should also implicate its audience. We, the liberal, affluent people from Yale, Boston and New York City, are supposed to leave feeling uncomfortable with our wealth, identifying with Marie despite our rational condemnation of her disposition and wondering, as a consequence, if perhaps we’re as disconnected as she is.
Unfortunately, “Marie Antoinette” is not great satire. Its subject is written as a caricature — a hilarious caricature, but a caricature nonetheless. She is heightened beyond recognition, her affectations so distorted that no audience will see its own collective face reflected in hers. We are most assuredly not Marie. Every time we laugh at her, it is proof that we recognize her absurdity, and if we can recognize her absurdity then we must not partake in it ourselves. Rather than indicting us, this play assuages: We, the liberal East-Coast affluent, are infinitely more grounded in, and therefore deserving of, our wealth.
Marie’s two-dimensionality becomes especially problematic in the second act when she and her family are deposed and imprisoned, and the play enters darker territory. The dialogue is slower, the lights are dimmer, and Marie is shouldered with real emotional burdens. Her slow unraveling is well plotted, but the Blanche Dubois turn is fundamentally misguided. This play does not initially ask to be understood as having a complex emotional arc — by the time we reach the second act, the audience has spent too much time laughing at Marie to suddenly see things through her eyes. Where Blanche’s descent into madness is tragic, Marie’s is pathetic and slightly uncomfortable. This is not the fault of Marin Ireland, who plays the part convincingly, and who shines as a comic force in the first act; it is the problem of a play that changes its dramatic terms halfway through.
Maybe Adjmi should have written his second act with the same refreshing stylizations of the first; Marie’s histrionics may not have forced me to re-examine my life, but they did provide an hour of very real entertainment. His play won’t go down in history as great satire, but for a night of theater with friends, good satire is good enough.