David Adjmi’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ at Soho Rep
By ERIC GRODE
Published: October 9, 2013, NY TIMES
The three-foot-tall wigs were among the first things to go, followed quickly by the collapsing wall of dirt.
David Adjmi’s brash play “Marie Antoinette,” which received a lavish production at two New England theaters last fall, has undergone an extreme make-under — not unlike the title character’s descent from dressmakers’ darling to lice-ridden prisoner.
The new approach, which New York audiences can assess when the play opens on Oct. 20 at Soho Rep, was born of both necessity and desire.
“I’m fascinated by what less can do and can be, especially when you’re doing a play about excess,” said Rebecca Taichman, the play’s director. “Now we can get at the core of it — the marrow, not the icing.”
Mr. Adjmi has his own description for the new aesthetic on display. “I hate to use the word ‘Brechtian,’ because it’s so overused, but the play has taken on this quality,” he said. “It’s almost like a chemical conversion. What does the play have inside of it when you take everything else away?”
They’ve come to the right place: Soho Rep, which produced Mr. Adjmi’s “Elective Affinities” and where he is currently playwright in residence, has earned a reputation for doing more with less. “There’s definitely an impulse here to fit big things into a small space,” said Sarah Benson, the theater’s artistic director.
But a minimalist examination of Marie Antoinette? Isn’t that like a bling-filled take on St. Francis of Assisi?
“Sure, there are these metonyms of opulence and glamour and lavishness,” Mr. Adjmi said, “but what we’re leaning into now is the tension between all of that and this looming existential nightmare that was the Reign of Terror. The play is designed to let you forget that — until you can’t.”
Perhaps the more apt analogy would be the transformation that a 14-year-old Marie made upon leaving Austria for France in 1770. In a symbolic divestment of all things Austrian, she was first stripped naked by a group of Frenchwomen, as diplomats from both countries looked on, then adorned with entirely new, French-made clothes. These new clothes enthralled the nation, at least for a while. Soho Rep only needs to enthrall 73 paying customers a night.
The two 2012 productions — at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven — took the more expected path in depicting a life of legendary opulence. In each, the opening scene featured Marie (played by Marin Ireland at both Yale Rep and Soho Rep) and two of her girlfriends cavorting in wigs that would give Marge Simpson neck pains. Marie’s outfits and wigs changed with every scene.
And when it came time to depict Marie’s changing fortunes, Ms. Taichman conveyed the growing storm cloud of revolution by having several inches of dirt dropped over Ms. Ireland and the entire stage. “The audience would just recoil every single night,” Mr. Adjmi said.
The productions got mixed reviews, and besides, Soho Rep doesn’t have space to drop even a handful of dirt. (When one actor was lodged in the ground in its 2008 production of “Blasted,” which also featured Ms. Ireland, his lower half was dangling through the ceiling of a dressing room downstairs.) The theater’s unusually shallow and wide dimensions — 22 feet long and 12 feet deep — rendered nearly every aspect of the previous productions untenable or at least grotesquely out of scale.
“So now what do we do?” Mr. Adjmi said. “Throw handfuls of chocolate cereal onto the stage?”
Both Mr. Adjmi and Ms. Taichman used the word “iterative” in separate interviews to describe the process in creating “Marie Antoinette,” which has been in development since 2007. “I originally annotated the script with all these notes and sent it to her,” he said. “She sent it back with her notes under my notes, and I sent it back with more notes, and we finally ended up with this 900-page Talmud of a text.” Dozens of radically different approaches had come up along the way; now it was just a matter of revisiting them, seeing if any of them made sense in the new space and sometimes starting fresh. “There was nothing premeditated about ‘Oh, let’s go to a smaller space,’ ” Ms. Taichman said. “It just emerged.”
One huge resource, Ms. Taichman said, was the space itself. “Sometimes limits are the greatest gift,” she said. The primary set element at Soho Rep is a severe slab of a wall with “MARIE ANTOINETTE” in a slash across it. (Riccardo Hernandez has remained the set designer throughout, although the costume and lighting designers are new.)
Ms. Benson, who has directed numerous productions at Soho Rep, said the space may be at a disadvantage in depicting the luxuries of 1780s Versailles but can better replicate another, less welcome aspect of Marie’s existence there. “So much of Marie’s journey involves this voyeuristic, claustrophobic environment,” she said, “and that’s a part of performing in such tight confines.”
And what about on the other side of the footlights? How does the dynamic change for the performers, who now find themselves separated from the audience by just three feet, the same distance that had previously separated them from the tops of their wigs?
Ms. Ireland likened the new aesthetic to that of several bare-bones “Marie Antoinette” workshops she had done in its earliest incarnations. “I kind of lit up when David told me it was going to be stripped down,” she said.
Everyone involved allowed that the play’s trajectory has been unconventional. After all, theater pieces typically transfer from smaller spaces to larger ones. But like many newly arrived New Yorkers, the “Marie Antoinette” team has made the best of its snugger lodgings. If only Marie herself had been so accommodating.
A version of this article appears in print on October 13, 2013, on page AR6 of the New York edition with the headline: Downsizing a Play (as Well as Its Wigs).