Arts theater review

Breathing life into a long-gone European empress

A play based on the letters of Marie-Antoinette

Marie-Antoinette In Her Own Words

By Evelyne Lever

Directed by Katherine Adamov

Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre

8 p.m. Oct. 18–19, and 3 p.m. Oct. 20, 2013

Whether it is just another attempt by feminist revisionist historians to rehabilitate female historical figures by distinguishing their personal views and deeds from that of their husbands or fathers, or merely an expression of the personal and professional views of Evelyne Lever, a leading contemporary French historian and author, Marie-Antoinette in Her Own Words at the very least invokes sympathy for her gruesome fate, if not also empathy for her long suffering through a passionless marriage and the backstabbing of cruel panjandrums in the 18th century French imperial court.

The task of rehabilitation of a long-gone European empress before French and American audiences is no small feat, particularly given that Marie-Antoinette was actually Austrian not French, and that most Americans feel a reflexive repulsion for European imperials, male or female. Katherine Adamov accomplishes this task by ardent directing, casting and presentation. The sheer simplicity and frugality of the set design, reminiscent of a nun’s convent, the casting of the elegant and proudly poised Barbara Schulz, one of France’s most popular theatrical actresses, and the eloquent prose of Marie-Antoinette’s letters adopted for the play — all sum up to a feeling that a very young Mother Theresa is about to be guillotined!

The play is set in Marie-Antoinette’s dimly lit prison cell, furnished by a modest bed and desk, where she spends most of the performance reading letters from her past, mostly to her mother back in Austria. The letters chronicle her pain and anguish, beginning in 1770 with her teenage marriage to the Dauphin of France, the future King Louis XIV, who refused to consummate their marriage for nearly seven years, to the eve of her execution in 1793.

The letters conspicuously move from retrospection to introspection as she interjects meanings and anecdotal evidence to buttress her argument that she is a victim of forces far beyond her control. Her portrayal of the French royal courtesans as racists and sexists bent on blaming her for France’s financial losses to Austria, and of bloodthirsty revolutionaries keen on vengeance for crimes committed against the proletariat and peasantry long before her 23 years tenure, is convincingly articulated.

This feast of postmodern melodrama was performed in French with subtitles, without an intermission, by a single actress, in a single act, and before an appreciative Francophile audience of mostly intellectuals. If you, as I do, recognize and appreciate that certain je ne sais quoi which some French women exude, then you’ll enjoy Schulz’s performance, which breathes life into Mari-Antoinette’s oeuvre.