Nimble Direction and Deft Acting Allow Lusty Marie Antoinette to Soar
Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 00:11
Eschewing historical accuracy for a decidedly modern sense of character, the Kenyon College Dramatic Club’s production of Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh tells the familiar tale of the doomed French monarch through a new lens. The show, which opened two weeks ago to a packed Hill Theater, tackled its subject matter — an ambiguous love triangle between queen, artist and count — with bite and wit, deftly blending elements of comedy and drama to create a work that is as starkly human as it is entertaining. This play was the senior thesis of Samantha Sheahan ’13 and Verity Allen ’13.
The show explores the complex relationship between the young Marie Antoinette (Sheahan) and her portrait artist Elisa (Allen). The two become embroiled in concurrent affairs with the gallant and idealistic Count Alexis, acted with rakish charm by Sam Whipple ’16. Unlike the queen and Elisa, however, Alexis has dreams of a democratized France, one in which the monarchy ceases and the people rule.
Infused with a fresh sense of comedy and sexual frankness, the first act of the show establishes a world of excess and obliviousness, focusing on the sexual exploits and social intrigues of the threesome. As the ominous clouds of revolution begin to gather and whispers of dissent surround the monarchy, the threads that tie these individuals together begin to disintegrate, pushing them into situations in which their allegiances are tested and, in some instances, broken forever.
This conflict between the crumbling monarchy that Marie Antoinette personifies, the impending revolution that motivates Alexis and the ambiguous middle ground in which Elisa resides provides the play with a palpable pressure, building upon the sexual and emotional tensions established in the beginning.
The production, which could easily have become bloated with context and chronological details, benefits from a light touch by director Madeline Jobrack ’13. Working within a tightly triangulated plot structure, the nimble script keeps the show moving swiftly through the decades, with the production giving more weight to the development of characters than to historical reverence. Because it portrays three individuals in an authentic, multi-dimensional way, the show avoids becoming too stiff or formal and allows history to play its part without becoming a European history lesson.
But the true genius of this production lies in the performances, which propel the narrative through potentially melodramatic territory and provide the show with a strong and definitive human pulse. As the ambitious and talented portrait artist Elisa, Allen creates a compelling character, bringing to life the complex feelings of love, resentment and frustration aimed at her friend, patron and superior, the queen of France.
Sheahan, too, finds a way of reinventing the oft-represented queen, infusing her with a beguiling combination of insecurity and resolve. Her embodiment of the titular character provides the play with its heart, preventing her character from being boxed in. In this production, Marie Antoinette is neither victim nor villain; instead, she’s an individual burdened by her duty, bound by her passions and doomed by circumstances largely outside of her control. As Count Alexis, Whipple gives the production a breath of fresh air, conveying the count’s idealistic dreams and boundless charisma with a natural ease and charm.
Marie Antoinette succeeds where many period pieces fail by creating an involving character study of three individuals who appear to us as flesh-and-blood humans, not historical figureheads. Illustrating an intricate landscape of emotional landmines that could explode at any second, the play threads together plotlines about politics, sex and power that provide the show with a palpable sense of modernity. And while the sexual exploits provide the show with an obvious sense of passion, the true heat generated comes from the relationship between Antoinette and Elisa, two individuals whose similarities prove to be far more than skin deep.