From the Spring 2015 Issue of Clef Notes Journal

Steppenwolf Theatre's Chicago premiere of Marie Antoinette aims to entertain audiences with the tale of the woman who could actually be considered the original celebrity train wreck. In fact, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears and the entire Kardashian brood have nothing on the young queen of France whose extravagance and excess gained her legions of fans and simultaneously sealed her fate.

Led by talented director Robert O'Hara, Marie Antoinette is a contemporary take on the historic figure. Part fashion show and part historical drama, the production combines the opulence of 1700s French royalty with modern day language and a healthy dose of rock and roll.  “The story is told with a very different take than a historical drama normally is told,” says O'Hara. “It's funny, it's fierce, it's fast and furious. It's a spectacular experience that is a huge speeding train that we know will end in a glorious wreck.”

The story begins partway into Marie Antoinette's marriage to Louis XVI and is told in brief vignettes—glimpses into the queen's life that O'Hara thinks audiences will find quite familiar. “We're used to sound bites,” he says. “I think that because of all the reality television shows and all the celebrity love fests we have, we're used to seeing these morsels of truth about Beyonce…and Angelina Jolie or whatever and diving into their story in whatever way that we can...That context allows the audience to get in touch with the story.”

It's a story that—on the surface—isn't typical Steppenwolf fare. Marie Antoinette is an over-the-top comedy that explores a historical figure through outrageous costumes and situations with a sound track that mashes up French hip hop with classical music. Definitely not exactly what Steppenwolf is known for. Or is it?

“It's a dark comedy,” laughs O'Hara. “It's funny until the head starts to be chopped off. We're all very excited to see what happens. It actually fits right into Steppenwolf's standard domestic realism. It's just that Marie Antoinette's domestic situation is she lived at Versaille. Her level of domesticity is crazy to us.”

Steppenwolf's production takes things even further by casting company member Alana Arenas in the title role. “You don't usually see African-Americans playing European royalty,” says O'Hara. He suggested the script to Steppenwolf with Arenas in mind, and there was no hesitation from the theater about the non-traditional casting. He explains, “The wonderful thing about her being African-American is that it really parallels Marie Antoinette's life because Marie Antoinette was not French. She was Austrian. She was an outsider in her own kingdom.” It doesn't hurt that Arenas has some major acting chops, too. Raves O'Hara, “She's a thrilling performer.”

Like many people, Arenas first thought of Marie Antoinette's outrageous style and how much fun that would be to explore. “Robert gave me the play to read, and I really liked it,” says Arenas. “I do know that she enjoyed being a girl and I really enjoy being a girl, I immediately leapt to the fun of the character.”

Fun and fashion are, indeed, a major part of this production. Though the concept and the language are contemporary, there's no shortage of extravagant clothing complete with Rococo-inspired dresses that are almost impossible to sit in. With the audience positioned on two sides of the stage, “It's almost like a runway show,” explains O'Hara. “From the moment you walk into the theater, you're going to be put into this high end, haute couture fashion show.”

Although fun is important in the world of Marie Antoinette, equally important to O'Hara and Arenas is creating a story that is compelling to watch—a story that's more than just a parade of flamboyant dresses. “I'm just dealing with trying to bring her to life as I would with any other person,” says Arenas.

Adds O'Hara, “The costumes are all part of the fun of exploring the drama of celebrity and society's fascination with it.”

Arenas has some experience bringing a real person to life on stage. At Lookingglass Theatre in 2007, she played the title character in Black Diamond—the real life leader of a band of young Liberian female freedom fighters. “Black Diamond was a lot more daunting because that woman is actually alive... There's more room for people to scrutinize,” says Arenas.

Creating the character of Marie Antoinette has proven to be a different sort of challenge, however. “This is challenging,” she explains, “because I'm up against everyone else's perception of Marie Antoinette. There are so many different accounts about her life. Sometimes you don't know what source is credible, so you have to choose what you believe. I still have to really rely on imagination. I have no idea what it's like to be a queen, and I don't know any queens that are (so) accessible that I can just say, 'Hey, tell me what it's like to walk a day in your shoes.'”

Although much may be said about an African-American actress playing Marie Antoinette, Arenas has chosen to focus squarely on bringing the character to life based on the tools the playwright has given her. “More than anything, the fact that Marie Antoinette in her role as the Queen of France was a foreigner is one way of (how) I am playing this role can inform the character,” she says. “But I'm not a person who looks at a character and thinks that I need to bend them to my reality. (Marie Antoinette) is a historical figure, and I don't know that the story would be profited if I didn't try my best to understand who this person was and bring forth my interpretation of that.”

Though the production aims to be big and bold, the journey of Marie Antoinette is what really holds the play together, and Arenas thinks that there's a lot more to the notorious queen—and, by extension, to famous personalities in general—than most audiences realize. “People feel like just because (celebrities) get a lot of attention, that it's all enviable. I don't think we make allowances for people who understand that, yes they have a public role...but it doesn't mean they enjoy it.”

For audiences who think a modern take on Marie Antoinette has already been tackled in Sofia Coppola's 2006 film, Robert O'Hara urges them to think again. “That (film) would be a springboard to what you're going to experience when you see the play at Steppenwolf,” he says. “If that was 180 degrees, then our play is 360 degrees from what you think of as the story of Marie Antoinette.”

O'Hara continues, “We're not interested in doing some sort of Masterpeice Theatre museum piece of Marie Antoinette. It's Marie Antoinette told through a contemporary lens, but we're not resetting it in 2015. There will be a mash-up of periods and contemporary looks and feels and sounds.”

With fashion inspired by both history and modern haute couture, music that's evokes past and present, and a focus on the cult of celebrity both in the 18th century and in today's world, Marie Antoinette is filled with images and ideas that are certainly thought-provoking and wide-ranging. With so much to offer, Steppenwolf is hoping that the production appeals to its typical audiences along with a new group of theatre-goers.

Says O'Hara, “(The play) appeals to a young, hip crowd with eclectic tastes. People who are interested in fashion, people who are interested in celebrity gossip, and people who are interested in history. This is a play that has great music, great fashion, and a great story. It's fast, it's adult, and it's exciting.”

Marie Antoinette runs at Steppenwolf Theatre's Upstage Theatre through May 10.
Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Alana Arenas stars this spring in the titular role in David Adjimi's contemporary take on the iconic French royal, Marie Antoinette (photo by Lorenzo De Gregorio).

Marie Antoinette 2.0

Steppenwolf Theatre has unveiled a new contemporary take on the infamous young Queen of France and you'll be surprised at just how relevant her ilk is today when you take a look at the historical icon's life through the lens of playwright David Adjmi.
By Leslie Price