In late spring, Cecile Monteyne carted around a biography of Marie Antoinette while on her honeymoon in France, and says she couldn't help but notice that the notorious queen still has appeal.
"You'd see books like Have Tea With Marie, and cookbooks and keychains and soap and pins with little busts and jewelry with her," she says.
Monteyne was preparing to play the queen in the NOLA Project's season opener, which starts with Marie on the throne, sharing chocolates and goodies with her aristo- cratic confidants.
"Helen of Troy is my inspiration," Marie says breezily, and stares blankly when a friend praises Homer and The Odyssey, neither of which she recognizes.
The actual Marie Antoinette was born to a ruling family in Austria, and in a politically arranged marriage was sent to France as a teenager to wed Louis XVI. While still a teenager, she ascended to the throne and the public adored her. She set fashion trends among privileged classes in Paris.
"Because of me, hairdos got so high they had to raise the height of the carriages," Marie boasts.
Louis XVI was not a particularly competent leader, particularly as he struggled with the crown's dismal finances and bread shortages left citizens hungry. Ideas about equality and liberty combined with economic strife and public outrage at abuse of power brought the French Revolution to the doors of the royals in Paris and Versailles.
Marie became a scapegoat and symbol of royal excess. She was vilified for lavish spending on jewelry, clothes and the palaces. She was accused of being loyal to her native Austria, and considered suspect for not immediately delivering an heir to the throne. Rumors of all sorts of sexual perversion circulated. She was immortalized for responding to the peasants' lack of bread by saying, "Let them eat cake." There's very little to suggest she actually said that, but the mobs were hungry for blood.
"It's a great examination of our obsessive public culture of putting people on a pedestal and ripping them down," says NOLA Project artistic director A.J. Allegra, who plays Louis XVI.
David Adjmi's play premiered in 2012, and this is its regional premiere. Previous productions have played up the opulence, director Mark Routhier notes, and that's part of Marie's story. Monteyne has five wigs for this production, but Bill Walker's set starkly raises the specter of the French Revolution. There are surreal turns, and Marie, thought not intellectually curious, is insightful and shrewd. She is aware there is a public image of her that she can't control, and she's unapologetic about being born into royalty.
The play features a large cast, but Monteyne is onstage during the entire show. In 2014, Monteyne received accolades for starring as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Olivia in Twelfth Night; or What You Will and appeared as the lead in two other shows. The NOLA Project opted to produce Marie Antoinette to build on her and the company's success with those shows, Allegra says.
Marie fusses at Louis' boyish foibles, expounds on her tastes for the finer things, solicits companionship and fights to maintain her position in a work that explores her enigmatic identity and whether she is a monster or victim.