Entertainment :: Theatre

Powdered Wigs and Talking Sheep :: David Greenspan on ’Marie Antoinette’

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Sep 5, 2012
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Given the economic landscape of the times, any play about Marie Antoinette is bound to feel like a comment on the disparity between rich and poor and the growing perception that the haves are ever more callous toward the have-nots.

But David Adjmi’s play "Marie Antoinette," which debuted its world premiere run Sept. 1 at the American Repertory Theatre and continues until Sept. 29, is also about the power of dreams and imagination. Surreal and funny, Adjmi’s new play isn’t history so much as hallucinatory recollection. His Marie isn’t malicious so much as out of touch; as for being provocative, she simply can’t help it. She’s a foreigner (from Austria), and that in itself makes her a target for vicious smear campaigns. Otherwise, Marie in and of herself is secondary to Marie as a symbol: The fact that she’s queen, and lives in queenly style, makes her a focus of revolutionary fervor.

In Adjmi’s script, Marie almost drifts from the pinnacle of power to condemned prisoner. Along the way, she engages in sometimes bawdy, often anachronistic conversations... at one point, with a talking sheep, played (and puppeteered) by New York-based actor David Greenspan.

The Obie-Award winning Greenspan is a writer as well an actor. He co-authored a musical stage version of Neil Gaiman’s novel "Coraline," played nimbly with gender and identity in "She Stoops to Comedy" (in which he played a cross-dressing lesbian), and tackled a very different historical setting in his one-man-show adaptation of a play from 1925, "The Patsy," by Barry Conners. ("The Patsy" also features a female character who finds herself set against the world around her.)

Greenspan chatted with EDGE recently about "Marie Antoinette," bringing his craft to Boston, and what it’s like to bring a sheep puppet to life.

EDGE:: As a playwright in your own respect, how do you respond to David Adjmi’s script for "Marie Antoinette," with its anachronistic, very casual, and very funny dialogue?

David Greenspan: It’s something I’m accustomed to in terms of plays taking on historical figures with a contemporary sensibility through language or ideas. I think David is a very imaginative, highly intelligent writer, and there certainly is a strong comedic tone to much of the play. But there is definitely a dark undercurrent that vibrates throughout, and that’s ultimately what overtakes the principal characters, and it becomes the dominant tone late in the play as events come to a head. But there is also a brilliant comedic aspect to the dialogue that’s very rewarding and funny, and very exciting.

EDGE: Is "Marie Antoinette" a reflection on the America of today--the so-called 1%, the Occupy Movement, etc.?

David Greenspan: The play takes place in a period of such intense political, social, and economic upheaval. I don’t know if it’s fully translatable to the current affairs in the United States or even globally; I’m not enough of a social scientist to know.

Also, I’ve done readings of this play over the last several years, before the current financial crisis was as bad as it is now. My sense is that "Marie Antoinette" was not written in response to that, unless David was already reflecting on the emerging economic problems in the United States.

EDGE: This play is not meant to be history, really; it’s extremely contemporary in form and in dialogue. Is the idea to make a statement about the dreamlike nature of recollection, and how we project our own imaginations and fantasies upon it?

David Greenspan: Sure. As you’re pointing out, there are surreal, highly imaginative elements in the play. The sheep is a good example of that.

Because of the way people speak, and particularly the way Marie Antoinette thinks, there is a contemporary sensibility. She is a well educated, though not particularly perceptive, woman born into a wealthy and powerful aristocratic elite. She is detached from the social and political and economic environment outside of her circle. She’s insensitive to what is going on around her. That [same description] could be applied to people in our own culture, people who are protected from certain economic realities.

EDGE: How did you come to be coaxed from New York to Boston to play this role?

David Greenspan: As I said, I’ve done a few readings of the play, and I’ve worked with [director] Rebecca Taichman on Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s "Orlando"--that was a couple of years ago at Classic Theater Company in New York. That went over quite well.

And I admire David’s writing, so when they offered the role, I was happy to accept it. Basically, unless I have a prior commitment, I take whatever job comes my way; that was one reason [I accepted the offer]. And it was nice to know I’d be working with people I admire. I’ve worked with Steve Rattazzi, who plays King Louis, and I know Vin [Knight, who plays a Royalist] from his work with the theatre company Elevator Repair Service.

EDGE: Among other plays, you are the author of the historical one-man play "The Patsy." Does having written your own plays inform your interpretation of the roles you take on, or even the role you play here?

David Greenspan: It would be impossible to imagine someone doing "The Patsy" as I did it in 1925. There is a contemporary element to re-thinking how to do the piece, and it reflects my ongoing interest in terms of solo performance.

I don’t think it informs how I’m working with David’s script. It’s a different assignment, and it’s a relatively small role. It’s not a naturalistic scene, whereas "The Patsy" is basically a naturalistic play [although] in our production [as a one-man show] it called for a non-naturalistic approach. I guess the only commonality would be that "Marie Antoinette" concerns historical figures and "The Patsy" is very much a play of a different a theatrical; and neither is done as a documentary or a historical drama.

EDGE: I’ll be looking forward to your interpretation of The Sheep...

David Greenspan: I’m very glad to have the opportunity to work with the puppets--and with the puppet designer Matt Acheson. It’s a real challenge to infuse the sheep puppets with life--both physically and vocally--to disappear into them and, at the same time, maintain my actor’s presence as the scenes progress and the character of the sheep unfolds.

EDGE: Is this your first theater work in Boston?

David Greenspan: In a way. I was at Harvard recently performing a solo piece of mine called "The Argument" for a summer session focusing on the theater and philosophy. I came up with David Herskovits. He did a presentation of a piece called "The Dinner Party," that’s based on Plato’s "The Symposium," that I acted in also. I’ll be performing my solo piece again the first of October at Boston University. But this is the first real production I’ve done in Boston.

EDGE:: There’s something of an intersection between social questions such as marriage equality or full civil parity for GLBTs and the economic questions that "Marie Antoinette" resonates with, in terms of the upcoming elections. I’m not a social scientist either, but I wonder if you have a gut feeling as to whether this will be a good election season for us.

David Greenspan: I don’t know. I hope so!

[Laughter]

I get scared every election cycle. Even with whatever disappointments and reservations I have about President Obama, the alternative is always so frightening that it’s hard not to be uneasy. It doesn’t seem like anything is in the bag.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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