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The Making of Marie Antoinette

Pageantry meets musings on fame and self-determination in the theater department’s modern take on France’s most notorious queen

In the fall production of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette by the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, the titular monarch takes the stage in rings, bracelets, and tiered necklace, a two-foot-tall wig, and a skirts-and-bustle ensemble four feet wide.

Around her, the set pops with color-changing flashbulbs, silver tinsel curtains, the name “Marie” written in lights, and a Paris Fashion Week vibe. Marble-tiled runways radiate from a central dais. 

A contemporary take on the famous queen of France, who took the throne at 18, the show draws parallels to the concept of modern celebrity. Modern tabloid front pages appear on screens above the stage, and the soundscape includes harpsichord renditions of songs from Taylor Swift’s album Reputation.

“We’ve combined elements of Versailles in the late 18th century with elements of a fashion runway show,” said Noe Montez, associate professor and department chair, who directed the production.

“It’s about being surrounded by a world that knows how to use you, but not how to value and understand you—and how you face being a part of the public gaze while still having some degree of control, and choosing what you will become,” he said.

Hold Your Head High

The show, which ran October 26-November 5 at the Balch Arena Theater, involved 70-plus cast and crew (mostly students), and had scenes set in 16 locations over some 20 years.

After years of pared-back productions due to the pandemic, everyone was excited for a costume-heavy show, Montez said—although it wasn’t without its challenges.

“I have never had that much weight on my head before, or walked around with a skirt so big that I had to make sure I wasn’t bumping into people,” said star Tess Kaplan, A24, who did neck strengthening exercises to hold up Marie’s heavy wigs. “I literally can’t fit through doorways from the dressing room to the stage.” (She had to wait till she was backstage to don half of her costume.)

Kaplan also found it challenging—but fascinating—to offer a more nuanced, sympathetic portrait of a historical figure who’s known mainly for the phrase “Let them eat cake.”

“Marie is not necessarily a bad person—she’s silly, naive, and a little self-centered. She doesn’t really understand the struggles that other people are facing,” said Kaplan, a double major in cognitive brain studies and theater and performance studies. “But she wasn’t just the rumors they spread about her. She was more than that.”

For his part, her husband Louis XVI is basically an overgrown toddler. “It’s just a ton of fun, messing around and being childlike, while having these very serious undertones and implications for the scene,” said Wylie Doak, A26, who played Marie’s royal partner. 

Currently eyeing a major in political science and history, Doak said he enjoyed imagining what was going through people’s minds as the French Revolution turned their world upside down.

“To me, acting is a process of understanding other people and their motivations and emotions, and how it feels in your body,” Doak said. “You get to experiment with these feelings that you don’t think about in your everyday life, but that make humanity beautiful and unique.”

Look and Feel

The costumes were the senior capstone project of Tate Olitt, A24, a theater and performance studies major who did many hours of research before making renderings, shopping for fabrics, and overseeing fittings.

“What was fun about the project was having so much freedom to do what I wanted with the designs on such a large scale. I was allowed the space to dream big and then scale back where needed,” Olitt said.

“I love when I have the opportunity to show character development through costumes,” she said. The best part is often the things people might not notice, she said—like the overlapping M and A on Marie’s first skirt, which Olitt based on a ring owned by the real Marie Antoinette. “I tend to be proud of the little thought-out details. They bring me joy.”

Being in a production is an empowering opportunity for students to learn through experience, and to put their own personal stamp on a role and a show, Montez said.

“It truly does take a massive team to stage a production here at Tufts, and it creates great learning opportunities for the students,” he said. “They have this ephemeral experience of coming together to build something unique and personal, and then letting it go, knowing what they’ve done has been seen by a few hundred people and that maybe at some level it has changed them.”

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