First things first.
Yes, there’s a guillotine.
That’s a given in any play called “Marie Antoinette,” but the production — on stage at Carthage College — is about so much more than the execution of the queen of France.
For one thing, there are the wigs.
Carthage student Veronica Vickas created the costumes and wigs for this show as her senior thesis, working with faculty member Kim Instenes, said Carthage professor Herschel Kruger, who is directing the play.
“They built almost all the costumes,” he said, “which for the women include corsets — and those hairpieces.”
Seeing as the French style in that time included massive hairpieces, he said, “Veronica came up with some stylized ideas for those wigs, which was a huge undertaking.”
Style in general is a big focus of this play, written by David Adjmi and performed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2015.
The action takes place in the lavish palace of Versailles, which the crew members create on stage “through a set with a lot of flexibility that captures the essence of the place,” Kruger said.
On stage, framed titles and props are used to help set the scene as the French Revolution ramps up outside the palace walls.
The playwright fashions his “Marie Antoinette” as “an absurdist tragicomedy about the life and times of infamous royal and icon of lavish living.”
Translation: This version of the doomed queen’s story “is set in that time period (the 1790s) but contains some modern anachronisms,” Kruger said, “including contemporary language. It’s very 18th century, but some things will ring as very contemporary, including the people’s attitudes and physicality.”
The costumes, he added, “are accurate, too, but with some liberties taken.”
Queen plagued by fake news
When most people hear the name Marie Antoinette, “they remember two things about her,” Kruger said, “that she got her head cut off and something she never said.” He is referring to the famous quote “Let them eat cake,” which she supposedly uttered when told the peasants had no bread to eat. (Consider that false statement to be an early case of fake news.)
Marie Antoinette, Kruger said, “was an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances. She was charming and beautiful but wasn’t educated and didn’t even really know how to read. She loved to gamble and go to parties, and her husband mostly ignored her, so she lived a life of extravagance.”
Though she was blamed for a lot of the political problems in France at that time, “she didn’t really pay attention to what was going on until it was too late,” he added.
Kruger said her situation wasn’t helped by her status as an outsider — she was born in Austria — and her husband.
King Louis XVI “didn’t really want to be the king. He was more interested in hunting and building clocks. He couldn’t make a decision — and, when he did, he didn’t make the right decisions.”
As the French Revolution progressed, Kruger said, Marie Antoinette found herself without allies, having distanced herself from the nobles who, perhaps, could have helped her.
The court of public opinion
When she arrived in France as an Austrian princess who marries the French king, Marie Antoinette was a glamorous, beloved public figure, Kruger said, “but public opinion turns against her in France. She really needed a good PR person.”
Luckily for historians — and playwrights — this era in France “is very well-documented,” Kruger said. “There are plenty of letters and other records to study. Our dramaturge (a theater researcher) really dug into the history, and our actors really dug into the whole story.”
Kruger said of this depiction of Marie Antoinette, “I like the play, the style of it, the humor — and that it has a strong message.”
Kruger said the play addresses the issue of “how do we choose our leaders in a democratic society — and what does it mean to be a leader?”
Audiences members, he added, “can walk away from the show thinking ‘that was entertaining,’ or they can think ‘has anything really changed in all these years?’ You can interpret it anyway you choose.”
Adjmi’s script also explores society’s obsession with celebrity through its celebration (at first) and later condemnation of Queen Marie Antoinette. (For contemporary examples, look for anything associated with a Kardashian on social media.)
At the end, Kruger says of the doomed queen, “She was raised to be a princess and never realized her potential. She became a victim of the Revolution because of that. This play captures all of those ideas.”
Off with her head!
And about that guillotine, which you’ve no doubt been wondering about through this entire column.
Without giving too much away, director Kruger said the production does feature a guillotine, adding “calling it large doesn’t do it justice.”