BY DAVID NOH | Weeks after seeing it, I still haven’t been able to get David Adjmi’s stunning play, “Marie Antoinette,” out of my head. It’s my best theatrical experience of the year so far. It runs through November 24 and I urge you to catch it at all costs (46 Walker St., btwn. Church St. & Broadway; sohorep.org/marie-antoinette).
I interviewed sexy, smart Adjmi in the cushy midtown digs Soho Rep has provided for him. I was surprised to learn that, unlike me, he was not a die-hard Antoinette obsessive, a passion that started for me at seven when I saw a picture of her and asked my Aunt Mary who she was. “The queen of France who had her head chopped off” was all she needed to say –– plus that gown!
The play is divinely researched and accurate, but Adjmi said, “I didn’t know a ton about Marie Antoinette and wasn’t that fixated on her. But when I wrote the play, I became fascinated and read Antonia Fraser and all the other different books about her. It’s funny because I wrote this in 2006 before Sofia Coppola’s movie came out. I finished it in March and the film went to Cannes that May so it was very much in the zeitgeist. People compare the two, but I haven’t seen the film, didn’t want to know about it. As soon as I wrote the play, I found out about the movie and I thought, ‘Oh Jesus Christ!’ It didn’t do well and I think that’s one of the reasons why my play didn’t get done back then.
Heady play about headless queen, a seriously fun ride, Village boo! time
“The character of my Marie is fused with me. I didn’t know her but felt something when I was researching her, a weird stirring inside. I thought, ‘I think I understand and know who this girl is,’ so I fused her with me and people I know and the culture in 2006. I thought about George Bush, the scion of a politically powerful family, put in this position he wasn’t really equipped for and not knowing what was going on. It was a kaleidoscope of stuff that informed the writing. I never wanted to do a literal historical rendering of her. I’m not good at that and never want to watch those plays, anyway. It felt very raw and immediate to me to interpose this personal stuff into this historical context and see what happened. So she’s real strung out and real neurotic, like a Jewish mother Marie Antoinette [chuckles].”
The direction, by Rebecca Taichman, is audaciously brilliant, in this minimal yet immensely rich production. In her film, even with full cinematic resources, Coppola copped out and ended it before the French Revolution began. On Soho Rep’s tiny, narrow stage, the entire nightmare is vividly evoked through a battery of ingenious effects.
“At our first production meeting, we were thinking, ‘How the fuck are we gonna do this without turning it into ‘Les Miz,’ people with blackened teeth, etc.?,’” Adjmi recalled. “It could be really horrible so we had to do it in a non-literal way, so I wrote these projected titles, like headlines, and Marie spins around the stage reading about what’s happening to her.
“This production is very different from the one we did previously at Yale Repertory. When we got this offer, we thought, ‘We can’t do the same production, which was a spectacle with costume changes and wigs flying up and back down to the ground. We even dropped a heavy sheet of dirt on Marie and it was like thud!, and the audience screamed, a very visceral, different kind of experience. Rebecca said, ‘Let’s just drop everything.’ Maybe two or three things from the original production remain, but we totally reinvented the wheel. Rebecca’s extraordinary.”
Marin Ireland could very well be giving the performance of the year in the title role: “What she’s being asked to do here not a lot can do. It’s very tricky, switching to extremes from moment to moment. She starts out like this comic virtuoso and then spirals into this German tragedy. At our first reading seven years ago, I said, ‘Let’s just read. I don’t want to say too much,’ and she just played it like a score, uncanny. We have a real connection and it was exactly the way I heard it in my head when writing it, which never happens. Because I never think its gonna be so clear –– even wonderful actors can’t hear what I hear. But she could hear the music and when you find someone like that, you’re like, ‘Ohmigod, don’t leave me!’”
The production has Marie’s two best friends, the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac, played by an Asian and black actress, respectively. When I asked why Polignac (Marsha Stephanie Blake) was pregnant in the play, Adjmi smiled, “Honestly, when we started, she was not pregnant, but by the time we got to New York, she was really pregnant. And I couldn’t fire her –– she’s brilliant –– so we’ll work it into the show. It’s funny because the actress who initially played that role at Yale got pregnant and that’s why she couldn’t do it here. There’s something about this role, and the play really is so much about pregnancy! ”
Adjmi, a Syrian Jew (who’s single, by the way), grew up in Brooklyn: “Midwood, which is now called Kensington. I guess it was sort of like a ghetto, growing up on Ocean Parkway. I always wanted to be a writer but procrastinated, didn’t know if I could do it, scared. I didn’t come from a family of writers, but business people, like in all the electronics stores on 47th Street –– Crazy Eddie. I was like, I’m not going to do that and escaped to forge this other path for myself.
“Being gay for me was hard. It was bad, the 1980s, a very homophobic environment, and I wrote about that a little in my play ‘Stunning’ and probably deal with that in all my work. I think that experience of being an outsider really informs all of my work as a writer, in general. Not just as a gay man, but that feeling of being excluded. I just read this great quote from an introduction of Brecht plays, written by Eric Bentley, where he said, ‘God is really on the periphery.’ He’s not in the center and it’s so interesting, a privileged position to be on the perimeter of something because you get to observe things and really have more of an overview in some ways. So for an artist, it’s a very good thing, a gift. You just have to know how to convert it.
“My family was not at all cool with me being gay. I went to a therapist and he got me to come out and then tried to do a conversion on me to make me into a bisexual and get married off. That didn’t work, but I tried, I tried… It’s funny, like some gigantic sedimentary rock I carry, like some of the trauma of that. But now we’re living in a different time, so you feel kind of like, ‘Oh wait, I’m not supposed to feel that way, I’m supposed to be liberated!’ These younger people that I teach and meet, gay guys in their 20s, have no idea about our difficult past. It’s interesting to feel that discrepancy, like a dinosaur or artifact, almost like from McCarthyism.
“I don’t have a big gay play in me. I don’t think like that. ‘3C’ maybe was my big gay play but people hated it, although some loved it. It was very polarizing. It was me re-enacting my trauma watching the show ‘Three’s Company’ when I was a little boy and going, ‘What is this?’ It seemed like being gay was a joke and I thought, ‘Wait, am I gay? Oh, no, I’m a joke!’
“So in a way, I was writing about this, but I don’t think in those terms, although maybe I should. I really like William Hoffman’s ‘As Is’ and Larry’s ‘The Normal Heart,’ but I wonder what a gay play would be now because I don’t think anyone has written it. What does it mean now to be a gay man or woman? Or trans –– I think there are some very interesting young trans writers, and I’d like to see what that play is, exploring sexuality in that way. I don’t want to see another gay farce thing. That we know –– it’s been done. Now what? I want to see something that critiques us and will blow my mind. Okay, is this who we are now?”
The Ride has been going on for a while now, but I just took it for the first time and loved it! This interactive bus tour of New York, which happens aboard a specially outfitted bus, one side of which is openly glass-paned and fully visible from the street, has a special haunted edition that was one hilariously twisted blast. Highly apocryphal and highly funny ghost tales were spun by the two seriously droll, adorable hosts –– both total improv virtuosos –– and lo and behold, said ghosts would magically appear before us at different stops, singing and tap dancing. In one particularly enchanting Manhattan vignette, a couple twirled together around Columbus Circle with all of the magical élan of Astaire and Rogers. And all of this was happening in the midst of normal Manhattanites, going about their daily business, most of them amusingly and completely oblivious to their shenanigans. Or maybe they just didn’t want to be hit upon for spare change.
There was, however, a lot of wonderful, euphoric street reaction to our bus from various random pedestrians, who did everything from striking muscle poses to performing an impromptu moonwalk routine. And, inevitably our guides would point out those most haunted New York spots of all, the Duane Reades, “haunted by people who ate the sushi, used their makeup, died in line waiting for the cashier to figure out how a touch screen cash register works.” (experiencetheride.com)
Maybe it was still too soon after Hurricane Sandy, or the weather, or the threatened cancellation of the Sixth Avenue parade, but this year Halloween in the West Village was smaller and therefore more fun than it’s been in ages. There was no need to escape my building on Christopher Street, as the crowds were manageable, the cops non-intrusive, and only die-hard, hard-core celebrants seemed to be out and about.
We had a serious blast, just making the rounds of what gay watering holes are left in the nabe –– raucous tranny haven Boots & Saddle, venerable bear den Ty’s, my “living room” Julius, and, best of all, the Monster, which, with its twerking thugs downstairs and happy brayers of Judy/ Liza songs upstairs, still remains a wonderfully raffish Queer Heaven.
Adorable married couple Julian Hussey and Bill Bolter were my guests from Bath, England. I dressed as my ladyboy alter ego, Donna Ho, and discovered just why such eminences of the genre as Lady Bunny and Joey Arias so enjoy being a girl. It’s the stoopid, grinding trade, stupid!