By John Quinn
Where does beauty lie? Playwright Joel Gross explores that question, and more, in his historical fiction, “Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh,” now on stage at the Performance Network in Ann Arbor. Gross uses the last decades of the doomed French monarchy and its most maligned figure to craft an elegant tale of thwarted love and ultimate self- discovery.
Even the most casual historian must know that the Queen was not as bad as her reputation. In the days before slick spin doctors, public opinion was really up for grabs. So consider Marie Antoinette. An Austrian princess thrust into a loveless marriage of convenience at age 15 through the obscene convention of bartering brides for political expedience, she learned discipline too late to save her head. Even that most infamous slur, “Let them eat cake!” is not hers – it’s the creation of Swiss writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his autobiography. His “Confessions” was published when Marie Antoinette was only 9. Her early spending sprees are fact. The rumors of infidelity and callousness are just that – the unproven ends of political muckraking. So Gross asks – was “‘Toinette” lovable?
The playwright creates a love triangle of the Queen, artist Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun and Count Alexis de Ligne, a cash-starved rake. “Elisa” was a real person – master in her art at time when professional women were rare – and the de facto official portrait artist of the last Bourbons. Count Alexis, though, is fictitious. He is based on many of the men rumored to be the Queen’s lovers, most notably Swedish Count Axel Fersen. And that’s that. There are no extraneous characters to muddy the waters. But enough with the background, the plot is juicy.
In order to further her career, the ambitious Elisa introduces Alexis, a sometime lover, to Marie. She becomes the Queen’s best friend and confidante. But as Marie Antoinette grows to love Alexis (and the feeling is mutual), Elisa finds an equally strong bond with the Queen (again, the feeling is mutual). The complex pas de trois lasts two decades, through the six years Alexis is absent to fight in the American Revolution, until the blood bath of revolution that destroys the monarchy.
“Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh” is an inventive script. The wit in the first act bubbles like fine champagne in the best tradition of a comedy of manners. It turns increasingly dark as doom approaches. Face it; we already know there’s no happy ending. The dialogue, however, is a little “talky,” and a less able director could have left the production wallowing in its own verbiage. Shannon Ferrente doesn’t disappoint – the delivery is crisp, clean and driven at just the right tempo.
Thus the actors can give crisp, clean performances. Jill Dion gives life to a conflicted character whose historical parallel is largely a mystery. Along with Drew Parker as Alexis and Chelsea Sadler as Marie Antoinette, the three gracefully carry us through the emotional turmoil.
Oh, a word about the reference to color in the title. Elisa spends her early career “prettifying” portraits – correcting blemishes of the clients she admired. Also, flattering a patron is good for business. In her maturity, though, she is painting them “wart and all,” but applying the skin color in thin, vibrant coats that produces an angelic glow from within. So ask again: Where does beauty lie?
‘Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh’
Performance Network, 120 East Huron St, Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 28. $27-$41. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org.