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Sofia Coppola made her willfully anachronistic Marie Antoinette for the movies less than a decade ago, so why return to that historical and aesthetic well so soon? Well, the gulf between the haves and the have-nothings is even more gaping now, here in the country David Adjmi’s Marie Antionette refers to as a “failed experiment,” than it was in 2006, when Coppola released her film.
Adjmi’s play, first produced in 2012, is a separate ball of wax. But it’s even more licentious in its history of the eponymous Austrian archduchess, whom you shall recall was imported to France and married at 14, became queen at 18, lived large, eventually came to be despised as the face of the decadent and uncaring monarchy, then was imprisoned and eventually beheaded at age 37. An example of the play’s liberties: It’s almost certain she did not converse with a talking sheep (played by Sarah Marshall, Woolly’s designated weirdo) who represents, I guess, the rage of her starving subjects.
That sheep is a big plus. But it’s still the telling, not the tale, that counts here. Woolly Mammoth’s funny, forceful new production, directed by Yury Urnov and starring the masterful Kimberly Gilbert in the biggest role of her brilliant career, has a visual wit and emotional urgency that transcends the oft-unsteady material. (A coda after Marie gets Ned-Starked in 1793 makes the show feel exponentially richer while extending it by less than a minute, and it’s not in the script at all. To say more about it would be telling.)
It opens in 1776 with Marie and her attendants luxuriating in their hot tub with chocolate and cocaine while techno music pulses and camera flashes fire. (“We have aspirin,” Marie shrugs, chopping up the lines.) Designer Misha Kachman has outdone himself with his imagining of the Hameau de la Reine, the golf course–like “farm” Marie had built at Versailles as an expression of her professed love of nature. There are ceramic-looking cows for Marie to “milk,” so long as you pour the already-harvested milk into them first, not to mention the anamorphic tea cups she ordered sculpted from her own breasts. I thought of the furnishings of A Clockwork Orange’s Korova Milk Bar.
All this opulence is in sharp relief to the privation of Act 2, wherein the lavish enclosure of the Hameau set falls away to reveal the graffiti-marked walls of Marie’s prison, and the mirror positioned behind her for the first half becomes a guillotine’s outsized blade. Gilbert shaved her head the day after finishing Woolly’s summer remount of Stupid Fucking Bird. That military buzz makes her look tougher and more vulnerable, somehow, after Marie’s Marge Simpson–height wigs (which, like her swimsuits, gowns, and eventually rags, are by Helen Huang) are taken along with the rest of her possessions, but she doesn’t need any help breaking our hearts. Joe Isenberg is very funny as the hapless Louis XVI, and James Konicek has a haunting turn as one of Marie’s jailers, his face painted in the colors of the revolution. But it’s Gilbert’s show, and as an indictment of a culture that considers anonymity worse than infamy, it’s a knockout.
“Marie Antoinette” is on stage at 641 D St. NW. $50-$78. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.