Playwright: Noah Sheola
At: Players Ring at the Athenaeum
Phone: Ticketmaster; $20
Runs through: Sept. 3
By Jonathan Abarbanel
The Chicago debut of Players Ring West, the local offshoot of a New Hampshire troupe, is difficult at best. I could say that The Grotesque History of Marie Antoinette is not my cup of tea—it isn't—and dismiss my reservations as entirely personal. But I think this play and production are problematic beyond my own reactions to the troupe's style.
In essence, this is a comic book or cartoon history of Marie Antoinette, the Austrian princess who became queen of France and followed her husband, King Louis XVI, to the guillotine in 1793 during the French Revolution. I don't have to tell readers that exaggeration is the essence of cartooning, which reduces text or dialogue elements while expanding and distorting visual elements.
But what happens when the subject of the cartoon already is exaggerated? The dates and events of the play are true and the portrayal of the queen as a shallow ( or at least simple ) and vain woman also is true, according to historical accounts. But the life of Marie Antoinette was utterly extravagant from birth to death ( at only 38 ) : a life of wealth, luxury and power almost beyond imagining even today. How do you exaggerate that life even more and, more importantly, why? What is the purpose? This is where the play fails me; it does nothing fresh to elucidate history or illuminate character. I don't understand the motives of the author, nor do I understand director Michael Gillett's interest in the play.
In an acoustically harsh room, Gillett has directed most of the work at a low shout, producing an overall effect of painful shrillness and muddied words. The vanities of the queen ( hard-working Christine Rosencrans ) are not endearing or amusing, so the play offers little to win audience sympathy. What's more, the author is inclined to talk about the action rather than show it. Plots swirl about the naive queen, and they are never fully explained or exploited. Only in the last three of the 17 scenes does the play generate any emotional appeal, when the queen goes to her kangaroo court trial and death with dignity and grace. It's rather too little too late. The excesses of the French Revolution are history, too.
Net result: The Grotesque History of Marie Antoinette is a comedy that isn't very funny, mainly leaving only the distortions—literally, the grotesqueries of the title—for the audience. These come in the form of masks and movement broadly borrowed from commedia dell'arte, which is—at least—appropriate for the historic time period. It's difficult to assess whether or not a different directorial approach would add value to the play, although a less raucous production would be more palatable for the audience and might give the work's—and history's—ironies better play.