For its fall production, the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies is staging David Adjmi’s play, “Marie Antoinette” (2012). A contemporary take on the story of the young French queen who witnessed the country’s collapse into revolution in the late 18th century, the play reflects many of the challenges women face in the modern world.
Adjmi’s play chronicles the life of Antoinette amidst the backdrop of an extravagant French society and explores how public attitudes towards the royals changed as the French Revolution began. The play is directed by Associate Professor Noe Montez, who also serves as chair of the department. Montez explained that the department selected “Marie Antoinette” because of the play’s continued relevance in the present day.
“I think what makes the repeated tellings of Marie Antoinette interesting … is her story is really about what it means to be a woman living in a world that knows how to use, but not how to value, femininity and womanhood,” Montez said.
Adjmi’s interpretation of Antoinette’s life is not like anything you’ve read in a history class. While the play takes place in 18th century France, the script is written with modern dialogue and the set trades out the palace of Versailles for a fashion show runway.
“It is decidedly ahistorical and anachronistic, in everything from the language and the approach that we’re taking,” Montez said. “Almost immediately, when folks walk into the theater space, they’re going to see something that is not a historical representation of Versailles. And then from there, the language, which is very much written with a modern, 21st century ear for dialogue, will help carry people through.”
Montez worked on the show with a cast of nine Tufts students, who began the rehearsal process in September. Montez emphasized his gratitude for the cast members, who each brought their own unique ideas to the play.
“It’s just been a really wonderful opportunity to collaborate with a group of actors who have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into their roles in this process,” Montez said. “I feel very fortunate to have been able to direct this show.”
While every member of the ensemble makes a valuable contribution to the story, the production would not be possible without its title character, played by senior Tess Kaplan. Kaplan, who never leaves the stage during the show, discussed the challenges of playing such a large role.
“I’ve never been in a position where the show revolves around me, and that felt really weird at first,” Kaplan said. “Despite that, it has been such a privilege to still be collaborative with everyone. … Everyone is doing their own part.”
Kaplan also discussed the challenges of playing a morally complex character like Antoinette, who was loved by some and loathed by others.
“You don’t really want people to think of her as a hero because she still did things that were wrong,” Kaplan said. “But you don’t want them to dislike her. So it’s a weird balance, and it’s been a really interesting journey for me.”
A highlight of the play’s design is its extravagant period costumes, designed by senior Tate Olitt. Olitt, a theatre major, designed the costumes for her senior capstone project. Kaplan’s costume, complete with an enormous wig and skirt, comes with the added challenge of taking up lots of space onstage.
“It’s been such a trip to be four feet wide and over seven feet tall, because of the huge skirts and the really tall wigs with really tall heels. And it’s so interesting, because I have to be aware of how much space I take up,” Kaplan said. “We’ve been talking about how that could be a metaphor for something else. Women aren’t usually allowed to take up so much space, but Marie took up a lot of space, and then people got mad at her for doing that.”
From a design standpoint, “Marie Antoinette” is a substantial undertaking for the department. In addition to the show’s period costumes and props, “Marie” has the largest run crew of any show the department has staged during Montez’s tenure at Tufts, including two dressers dedicated to helping Kaplan with onstage costume changes. Montez expressed his appreciation for the large design team who helped bring the show together.
“This is a production that really gives us an opportunity to showcase the full extent of the work that students who are working in design and production can do,” Montez said. “We’re playing with lights and projections in some ways that we never have before. In addition to [it] being a chance to tell a compelling story, it’s also a chance for us as a department to stretch our arms a little bit and push ourselves in terms of our scale of design and production.”
Montez also highlighted the ways in which the story will resonate with college students who might empathize with Marie’s plight. In 18th century France, many of the financial problems that led to revolution took place before Antoinette’s reign began, but she was an easy target for those looking for someone to blame.
“Marie became a convenient scapegoat; one: because she was a foreigner; two: because she was a woman; and three: because of her unwillingness to play by the rules of French society,” Montez said. “I think all of those things resonate with me in the current moment as experiences that might not be too far from many Tufts students’ experiences of trying to navigate the world as early 20-somethings.”
Montez emphasized that while the play is a retelling of historical events, it’s not simply a show about history. Rather than attempting to explain the events that took place during Antoinette’s reign, the show focuses on the pressures Antoinette faced as a young leader under the constant scrutiny of the public eye. Antoinette’s feelings of isolation in times of crisis are a key theme in the show, and Montez hopes that audiences will relate to her identity as an outsider in France.
“The question that I would have [for audiences] is: How do you see yourself and the ways that you have felt as an outsider in some way, whether that’s as a person not born in the United States, a queer, trans or non-binary person, a person of color or just someone who has felt like they are on the outside for some reason?” Montez said. “How do you see yourself and the ways that you have felt unfairly perceived mirrored in the experience of Marie Antoinette in a way that maybe gives you new insights into her as a historical figure, but more importantly, yourself?”
“Marie Antoinette” begins performances tonight in Balch Arena Theatre with a $5 preview at 7:30 p.m. $10 student tickets are available for the performances on Oct. 27 and 28 and Nov. 3 and 4. The show is set to close next weekend with a pay-what-you-wish matinee performance on Nov. 5. Tickets can be found online or at the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies box office in the Aidekman Arts Center.