CAMBRIDGE — The topic of income inequality is very much in the air these days at the American Repertory Theater, where David Adjmi’s “Marie Antoinette,” a tragicomedy about the ignominious one-percenter, is in rehearsals for its world premiere.
It’s not that Adjmi himself doesn’t hear the echoes of the French Revolution in the Occupy zeitgeist. But when he first wrote the play, in spring 2006 at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, the economy was still rolling merrily along, and the phrase “the 99 percent” did not yet evoke the masses. George W. Bush, then ensconced in the White House, was on Adjmi’s mind.
“I find Marie Antoinette a very sympathetic figure, surprisingly,” says the 38-year-old playwright, who was so upset when Bush was reelected in 2004 that he cried. “There are definitely aspects of Bush in there, because I wrote it during the Bush administration, and I was thinking a lot about this kind of dopey person who was born into royalty . . . and inserted into this position of power. How he got there I don’t really know. I never felt that he knew, exactly. I always felt that there was this cadre of people around him, and they just moved him around like a chess piece, and I thought that was kind of interesting.”
Marie Antoinette was only 14 in 1770 when her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, sent her to France from her home in Austria to marry the boy who would become Louis XVI. The ART’s marketing campaign for Adjmi’s play, which begins performances Saturday, taps into distaste for the queen, who died at the guillotine in 1793, during the Reign of Terror. “HEADS WILL ROLL,” the ads announce. But while Adjmi’s Marie is a spectacularly overindulged naïf, he doesn’t condemn her for her ignorance or for privilege so excessive that when she had a faux hamlet constructed for her amusement at Versailles, she played shepherdess there to perfumed sheep. Or so the story goes.
Actor David Greenspan, an Obie Award winner, plays one of those sheep, who converses with Marie. There is comedy in their situation — he is a talking sheep, and she is royalty pretending to be a rustic — but there are also rumblings of the popular unrest outside Versailles.
“I think there are certain, obviously, resonances in this play because of the economic situation, although I don’t know when there’s ever been a time when there haven’t been very wealthy people living at the expense of poorer people,” Greenspan says. “It’s just glaringly apparent at this time, when disenfranchised people live in all the economic levels other than the very wealthy. The disadvantaged are not only being so economically beaten down, but people who normally would have a more stable income are struggling so much.”
The play’s director, Rebecca Taichman, likes to say that Adjmi, a native New Yorker who studied philosophy and literary theory as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College, “detonates” scary things about the culture with his plays.
“I think David is on a kind of mission, like a spiritual mission, to ask some pretty seismic questions,” says Taichman, who also directed Adjmi’s “The Evildoers” at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2008. “I think in most of his work, he’s looking at an empire that’s swirling out of control. It’s had so much power that it’s like drunk on power and reeling with power, and it needs to kind of crack and break and sink and be reborn. He’s pretty fearless, and vicious, in the way he looks at that.”
Last season in New York, a tough ticket to get was Adjmi’s site-specific “Elective Affinities,” a monologue about smiling entitlement and abusive hegemony that the actress Zoe Caldwell performed in a milieu exuding wealth and exclusivity: a Fifth Avenue town house.
“Marie Antoinette,” co-produced with Yale Rep, where it will open in November, “could be done with four wigs and, like, a teapot,” Adjmi says. But the playwright, who estimates that he’s changed only 25 percent of the script since it poured out of him in less than a week at MacDowell, wanted something splashier for its world premiere. And he’s getting it: a cast of a dozen, a quadrille choreographed by Karole Armitage (“Hair”), a flock of beribboned sheep mannequins and puppets, 3-foot headpieces, and abundant costumes that, in postmodern style, sample late-18th-century, mid-20th-century, and present-day fashions. Like much of what’s seen at runway shows, the clothing worn at Versailles was not exactly intended for the street.
“The main point, I believe, about the clothing is the excess and the frivolity of it,” says costume designer Gabriel Berry. “Everything in the past looks frivolous and big to us, so introducing modern touches helps us sort of see it as conspicuous consumption as opposed to just ‘Oh, that’s what they wore.’ I also am a firm believer in acknowledging the year we’re doing the show in.”
Berry’s modern influences for her costumes include couturiers Cristóbal Balenciaga, Yohji Yamamoto, and Alexander McQueen. Meanwhile, set designer Riccardo Hernandez found inspiration in Andy Warhol’s mass production and Jeff Koons’s iconic depictions of celebrities. The colorful, contemporary plexiglass set, with its huge repeating patterns adapted from Versailles, is “truly almost like a historical LSD trip,” says Hernandez, who last season designed “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” at the ART and on Broadway.
“When you deal, aesthetically speaking, with the notion of repetition, you’re going to enter the notion of kitsch,” Hernandez says, “and there’s something about the world of Marie Antoinette that’s very kitsch.”
And, of course, decorative patterns aren’t the only kind that repeats.
The time of Marie Antoinette is “just like the age of Romney,” Berry says. “You’ve got the one percent and you’ve got the 99 percent.” The people in the play are “the one percent, and they’re living in their own little bubble with no reference whatsoever to the rest of the world. And they just think it’s normal.”
Adjmi is very much a member of the 99 percent. In July, after his pitch-black comedy “3C” ended its world-premiere run in New York, he told The New York Times that he didn’t have the money to defend the play against a legal challenge, which was brought by the copyright owner of the sitcom “Three’s Company.” (He says he’s since received offers of pro bono representation, though he declines to comment on whether he will now fight.) But even if he doesn’t have deep pockets of his own, he says he has no interest in demonizing the wealthy. To try to pin the country’s problems on them is, in his view, “facile and glib.”
Money can be a cage, the playwright says, and that’s what it was for Marie Antoinette. “The cage is something that she gilds for herself, but has she built it?” he asks. “I don’t think so. I think there are structures that preexist that she steps into.”
What interests Adjmi, he says, is examining the structures in contemporary culture and our responsibility for them.
“The political systems that we have that Bush and these other people step into, it’s part of a democracy that we engineered, and we’re responsible for it,” he says. “If this is really a democracy and we all have a part of it, then it’s our job to be able to, A, analyze the machinery of what makes it work and, B, figure out what our agency is and who we are, and get out of this fog and wake up.”
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@