A unique take on Marie Antoinette coming to Performance Network
photo courtesy of Performance Network
The play traces “an imagined love triangle” between Antoinette, her portraitist Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, and a completely fictional character, Count Alexis de Ligne, who is partially based on Antoinette’s friend and rumored lover Count Hans Axel von Fersen of Sweden. It is rooted in historical fact and covers two decades surrounding the French Revolution, beginning when Antoinette was 19 and ending a few months before she was executed for treason 1793 at the age of 38. However, the story is completely made up by novelist and playwright Joel Gross.
“It’s based on a lot of rumors. Every account of what happens in the play is something that might have happened. No one can say for sure that it didn’t happen,” says Chelsea Sadler, the actress portraying Antoinette.
“It takes all of these shadowy details surrounding her life that nobody can ever prove one way or another,” the theater’s artistic director David Wolber says. During her own lifetime, rumors surrounded her that questioned her fidelity to her husband, her lavish lifestyle, and why the couple (who were married at 15 years old) had not quickly produced an heir to the throne.Some aspects of the play are based in fact. “Something that’s a pretty significant part of the play that’s actually true is her relationship, or lack of a relationship, with her husband Louis XVI. They were married very young, when they were 15, and they didn’t consummate their marriage until they were in their 20s. That was causing people to believe that she wasn’t doing her duty as queen and that she must have been having affairs because there wasn’t an heir to the throne,” Sadler says.
“I also think it’s important to bring in elements that people know about her - she was childish and immature, she liked to wear wonderful clothing and buy expensive things, and she liked to gamble and go out dancing all night. I think those things have to exist in the play to satisfy the titillations that made her so famous,” she says.
Le Brun, who became known as Antoinette’s official portraitist, is also based on a real person. “However, there is very little known about this woman,” director Shannon Ferrante explains. “Jill Dion (the actress who plays Le Brun) attacks the heart of who the character is as Gross wrote her,” she explains.
“One of the fascinating things about the play,” according to Wolber, “is that it deals with her role as an artist and a woman,” in the context of 18th century systems of artist patronage,” he says. “She’s a portraitist of royalty. That’s how she makes her living. And she has conflicting beliefs about politics, but she’s also a part of the system,” he explains.
The final of the play’s three characters, Count de Ligne, is fictional. He never existed—at least not as one single person. Some aspects of his character are based on Antoinette’s rumored romance with the Swedish count who coordinated a failed attempt to escape Antoinette and Louis XVI. However, the fictional character is an “amalgam of different types of people or archetypes that existed during the time period,” Wolber says. For example, “the real Count Fersten never went to fight in the American Revolution,” but his counterpart in the play does.
Drew Parker, the actor who plays Count de Ligne, did not look to history for inspiration. “Generally, when I approach a role, I don’t take too much from history. I try to sneak up on it through rehearsal. I have a tendency to work a little slower until the character just kind of jumps on me,” he explains.
Ultimately, the lot of them agree the play is “grounded in humanity” rather than in reality. For example, “a strong theme of this play is the idea of humanity in politics,” Ferrante explains. “These people have vast differences when it comes to politics, but they find their connections with each other as human beings and not just political adversaries.”
Sadler adds that “some of the most passionate moments that they have between them are when they are arguing politics. Sometimes there is a very fine line between sex and politics.”
Parker echoes this sentiment in his summation of his character. “In the end, Gross wrote someone who is very human. He is a man. I can relate to everything that [Count de Ligne] goes through in this play,” he says.
Sadler thinks it is important “to ground Marie Antoinette in her own humanity. Over the last (approximately) 230 years since she was executed, I think she’s become like a caricature of herself, and we don’t really think of her as a real person,” she says. “By the end of the play, she becomes real and relatable to audiences,” she explains.
The period piece’s politics and language fits a modern Ann Arbor audience, according to the cast and crew interviewed. Ferrante thinks “the story is so topical now. A lot of what happened during the French Revolution was the separation between the rich and the poor, and all of this stuff about taxation. I think it echoes a lot of what’s going on with America right now. The character of the Count has a great line; ‘It’s not a sign of health that the rich are getting richer.’ That just seems so appropriate to what America is struggling with right now.”
“It’s about young, passionate political people, and I love that being in Ann Arbor there are so many young, passionate political people. I think they’ll like this and not find it stuffy like some historical period pieces,” Ferrante concludes.