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Cap T interviews MARIE ANTOINETTE playwright David Adjmi

5 March 2016

david adjmi
Cap T Artistic Director Mark Pickell had the distinct pleasure of asking David Adjmi a few questions about Marie Antoinette and his playwriting career.

Can you share with us a little about the origin of MARIE ANTOINETTE?

I was at an artist’s colony in New Hampshire working on another play for Soho Rep — it was a very byzantine, complicated reshuffling of a Henry James novel and I’d become too OCD working on that. I started getting terrible anxiety and complaining to the people at the artist’s colony that the ceilings of my studio were too low. Eventually I just quit, and decided to abjure the deadline for Soho Rep, and as soon as I did that then *this* play came to me. 18th century France wasn’t something I’d been particularly interested in on a conscious level, but Marie was in my unconscious for a long while, I guess. Her story really resonated with me. I wrote the play in about five days. …

What are some of the changes that came to the script during the development process?

Well, there was a lousy scene where Marie is jailed in a tower and looks through the bars and sees people parading a hacked up Lamballe on pikes in the street down below and screams, “CANNIBALS” at the top of her lungs. That one went pretty quickly. I think I flipped the order of a couple of scenes to give more of a dramatic build and I made a few changes to get Marie more active, but I really didn’t do all that much to the script. It’s not a perfect play, but I felt I’d ruin what makes it good if I did too much rewriting. It came out in such a flash of inspiration, I didn’t want to mess with it too much. …

What playwrights do you feel have been most influential to your playwriting style?

I’ve been very obsessed with Ibsen for a really long while, and I love how variable his writing is — it’s such a leap from Brand and to Hedda Gabler to Lady from the Sea. He’s not a creaky craftsman and I hate when people speak about him that way. He was of course a brilliant constructor of dramas, but he was also was a radical and an innovator. I think Hedda and Nora are in all my plays in some iteration. I love Susan Lori Parks for her politics and idiosyncrasy. I love writers who sound like nothing I’ve ever read. Churchill and Pinter have a complete mastery of tone and there is something kind of gnomic and otherworldly about these two—I can never get enough of them. Both of them have the most incredible sense of compression. They can do so much with so little. I return to them over and over. …

What has surprised you the most about MARIE ANTOINETTE in actual production?

I did the premiere production with Rebecca Taichman, who is a brilliant director and I was amazed at how she and our designers created this candy box Jeff Koons world that morphs into a sort of existential abyss by the end. There’s a stage direction in the play that just says “a riot” — and Rebecca kept saying “I really don’t want to have a bunch of toothless french people running around like a bad production of Les Miz, what can we do?” And she and the set designer came up with this crazy expressionist effect where they dropped a ton of dirt (it was actually dyed cork) on Marie’s head and when we did it people screamed and jumped. I thought that was pretty amazing. I knew I wanted the play to teeter on something lysergic and expressionistic but nothing can prepare you for seeing it in three dimensions.

MARIE has enjoyed performances at Yale Rep, Soho Rep, and Steppenwolf. It is now being produced across the country and even at high schools. What do you think gives your play such broad appeal?

Well I think Marie is a pretty compelling character—she’s funny and she’s tragic and she’s arrogant and she’s deeply lonely. So I think people like spending time with her and feeling their sympathies being pushed and pulled. But I think, more to the point, we are a superpower—whatever that means–on our way down. I think we all know and feel this on some level, so it’s a parable for us. It’s a play about inequality, and how political injustice reverberates in an individual psyche, and maybe that’s interesting for people. But I really think Marie would be shocked at our current political moment. I don’t know what she would do with Donald Trump. It would be too much–even for her. …

When talking to people about MARIE ANTOINETTE there is the inevitable comparison to Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film of the same name. Did her film give you pause in writing a stage play about the same subject?

Well, I’ve spoken about it in interviews again and again but people still think I wrote this play a couple of years ago. The sad fact is I finished the play in 2006, about nine months before the Coppola film came out. I hadn’t heard about the Coppola film when I wrote my play, and in fact I’ve never seen it.

Is there a common theme that ties your work together?

Fucked up people realizing they probably aren’t going to get any less fucked up by the end of the play.

What’s up next for you?

I’m revising a memoir that HarperCollins is publishing called SAVE US, SUPERMAN! And I’m doing a play with Will Butler from the band Arcade Fire and the director Daniel Aukin. And I’ve finished another play about the composer Oscar Levant who had five consecutive nervous breakdowns. That one is a comedy.

What would you like audiences talking about when they leave the theatre after a performance of MARIE ANTOINETTE?

I’d prefer they be shocked into deafening silence.