Metro Weekly

Woolly Mammoth’s Marie Antoinette (Theatre Review)

Playwright David Adjmi gives us a voyeur's view of Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette Photo by Stan Barouh
Marie Antoinette | Photo: Stan Barouh, Woolly Mammoth

If you like contemplating innocence and morality while having a laugh, the plays currently at Woolly Mammoth and Arena Stage make for a happy accident. And if you like your morally ambiguous protagonists high-tensile women, you’re in even better luck.

Like point and counterpoint, Woolly’s Marie Antoinette () ostensibly offers a rich woman, poor in virtue, while Arena’s The Shoplifters delivers the opposite. Whether each woman is really and wholly what she seems to be is left up to you.

Take Marie Antoinette. Though, like other celebrity deaths, her fall from grace and ugly end has for centuries gratified a particular kind of human lust, what do we really know of the woman under the wig?

Approaching the question from our own century’s love/hate relationship with newsmakers, playwright David Adjmi gives us a voyeur’s view of Marie amid the flashing bulbs of an amusingly relentless paparazzi. Although a clever reminder that there have always been Kardashians, it is also the setting of a context: Marie belongs to her fans and her detractors — she has no privacy in which to learn or make her mistakes. But as the wife of the king of France, she is far more than a disposable celebrity on a page you will soon turn. She is symbol and influence of a nation.

As director Yury Urnov ever-so-adeptly lets the wheels come off the glittering carriage, we see that Adjmi is not just imaginatively re-telling Marie’s story (and providing a gentle primer on France’s engagement with the Enlightenment along the way). He is far more intent on exploring the question of just how culpable Marie was or was not for her choices.

It’s a question which Adjmi begins to address – if not answer – with the details of her life. A wealthy, yet neglected and uneducated, girl sent at 14 into an arranged marriage far from home, Marie was a woman raised in a gilded but ignorant cage. Was she ever taught a moral code? And how can you learn one when you are surrounded, as she no doubt was, by amoral pragmatists and sycophants? To know Adjmi’s Marie is to ask: can we be held accountable for what we don’t know what we are missing?

Burning with the energy of this unguided missile, Kimberly Gilbert is grimly and brilliantly captivating as Marie. She seamlessly channels not only the grown child of entitlement, but also the unloved child within. Her realization, too late, that she has poured her energies into someone else’s idea of how she should live her life is poignant, not least because many of us can relate to it (even without the crown).

As her comically ineffectual husband and king, Louis XVI, Joe Eisenberg makes a convincing dynamic with Gilbert’s Marie, while Bradley Foster Smith as Axel Fersen offers an attractively low-key would-be lover. Gavin Lawrence moves effectively between roles with compelling detail and presence and Sarah Marshall portrays her surreally foreboding Sheep with a powerful, poised expressiveness.

Taken in the moment, it is high entertainment with its whirlwind pace and big imagination. Taken as a whole, it’s a piece that explores without easy answers. Would another woman have overcome Marie’s “handicaps” of wealth and ignorance? And if not, then was Marie more victim than villain?

Marie Antoinette runs through Oct. 12 at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit

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