David Adjmi’s plays aren’t easy to peg. “Stunning” — set in the Syrian-Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood where he was raised — revolves around a stifled 16-year-old wife and her worldly African-American housekeeper; “3C” takes on the sexual coyness and cultural close-mindedness of ’70s sitcom “Three’s Company”; and “Marie Antoinette” — opening at Steppenwolf Feb. 5 — lets loose his penchant for satire on one of the arguably more misunderstood figures in history.
Whether deemed a pawn in the dynastic power machinations of 18th-century Europe, or a profligate simpleton who deserved to lose her head, this archduchess-turned-queen is often evoked at times when power and greed seem to rule the age. For director Robert O’Hara, “Marie Antoinette” resonates in other, more personal ways. “Marie is an outsider in the country she rules. She is confined by the protocols of the French court and by royalty itself. I understand being confined by society’s rules: As a gay artist of color, I also feel the margins of what American theater usually chooses to stage, so it’s exciting to have such a mind-blowing piece of writing about a larger-than-life protagonist to delve into.”
More a fractured fairy tale than typical costume drama, “Marie Antoinette” leaps from facts of history to spin a free-wheeling civics lesson, shot through with sympathy for a woman struggling to inhabit the identity forced on her. “The only thing I knew about Marie Antoinette prior to our project is that she said, ‘Let them eat cake,’ ” shares actress Alana Arenas. “Now I know that even that quote is speculation, as are many other things said about her. If you can get past what she was born into and what was expected of her, it’s easier to understand her.”
The play, says O’Hara, is “funny, elliptical and furious. It plays fast and loose with the ‘truth’ and what we as Americans think of celebrity. It takes what an audience thinks they know about this famous queen and pulls the rug out from under it. We know from the start that the French Revolution is coming and that it will be brutal and bloody, and yet we thirst throughout this play for someone to save this tragedy from the inevitable. [Adjmi] has achieved a sort of beauty in the horror of it all.”
‘Marie Antoinette’: Feb. 5-May 10, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted. For tickets ($20-$82), call (312) 335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.org
Pictured at top: Alana Arenas will play Marie Antoinette.