There's not much suspense in David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette: We know the French queen and her nebbish of a husband aren't going to keep their heads when all around them are losing theirs.
Under Brenna Geffers' direction, the Curio Theatre Company's production of Adjmi's deliberately anachronistic take on the French Revolution is quick-paced, unflagging in its energy, and filled with arresting visual imagery. But it's also at times unduly cartoonish and short on the emotions that might make the queen's murder reverberate in the present.
We first meet Marie Antoinette (Jennifer Summerfield) in the company of two of her ladies in waiting, enjoying "a spot of tea," in the English style. The rest of the two-act play charts her downward slide, from absurd extravagance to affected pastoral simplicity and, finally, a humiliating imprisonment that strips her of her finery, her hair, and most of her pretensions. Adjmi references Rousseau, Voltaire and Robespierre, but his treatment of political and philosophical ideas is glancing, at best.
At Curio, projected text (boudoir is misspelled) supplies useful geographic and historical context. We're told of the French people's cresting economic misfortunes (prices rising three times faster than wages) and the country's resulting political instability. In essence, Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI (Brian McCann) fiddle – she with a Swedish diplomat and he with his beloved clocks – while Paris, metaphorically speaking, burns.
At the heart of the play, and certainly of this Curio production, is an uneasy ambivalence toward its title character. The French, it's suggested, have unfairly defamed their Vienna-born queen as "the Austrian whore," inflating her sexual peccadilloes with misogynistic fervor. They also may have misunderstood her famous, supposedly tone-deaf admonition: "Let them eat cake." In Adjmi's tongue-in-cheek telling, it's kindly meant, a corrective to an obsession with healthy eating.
As Marie, Summerfield is a charismatic presence, but her portrayal lacks charm and emotional nuance. She's too often merely shrill and annoying. The character, as written, is ignorant and disdainful, but also, as we're reminded, a victim of circumstances, consigned to an arranged marriage and a role she never chose. A more subtle performance might have wrung more poignancy from the doomed queen's undeniably tragic fate.
By contrast, McCann's Louis is a comic delight, a grown-up child more entranced by his horological hobby than his kingdom or his largely indifferent wife. But, in the end, his very cluelessness – his passivity when action is most required – summons genuine pathos.
There are other nice comic turns in the show, notably Jessica DalCanton's depiction of a sardonic, white-haired sheep, more in the know than the two sovereigns. Liam Mulshine lends authenticity to the seductive Swede and provides the petulant voice behind the royal heir (represented by a large doll).
The playing space is Paul Kuhn's minimalist colonnaded set, supplemented by a few gilded tables and chairs and heaps of gravel. Aetna Gallagher's mostly white, black and red costumes, DalCanton's hair designs, the terrific makeup, Tim Martin's lighting, and Chris Sannino's sound design and music lend the production a quasi-realistic, quasi-poetic feel.
Presented through March 10 by Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Ave. Tickets: $15-$30. Information: www.curiotheatre.org or 215-921-8243.