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Steppenwolf's production of David Adjmi's Marie Antoinette plunges you into the experience from the moment you hit your seat: two wide projection screens take you on a bird's-eye tour of Versailles, swooping in and out over the colossal structures a la the opening credits of Game of Thrones. The play's performed in the round in the intimate upstairs theater, the audience lined up on two sides as if we're spectators at a tennis match (quite appropriately, given the Tennis Court Oath). If you're taking it all in, you may not notice at first that two footmen have taken their own places and are sitting at attention, one to the side of each end of the stage. They're the dressers for the eye-popping runway show to come, set to a thumping electronic soundtrack and including the de rigueur entourage.
As Marie Antonia Josepha Johanna Antoinette, the frankly amazing Alana Arenas sweeps in with two ladies in waiting like Destiny's Child-era Beyonce. Marie and her attendants wear elaborate wigs, Marie's a beehive to rival Marge Simpson's. The bodices of their gowns are embroidered with rhinestones; the queen's, naturally, reads "Boss."
Director Robert O'Hara (who's also African-American) says in the program notes that he actually hadn't considered Arenas's being black until after he'd cast her as the Austrian princess: "I just wanted to do the play because it's period and funny and big and outrageous." But that's not to say the casting choice doesn't have meaning within the context of the play, he acknowledges. "I don't want people to come into the theater and think they're in 18th-century France," O'Hara says. "I would like them to think they're watching something that is speaking to them right now." One aspect of this is that "we don't see black royalty. And when we do it's because they've created an R&B song, or a hip-hop song."
Well, we see it here. And you don't need me to describe the brilliantly colored and wonderfully witty costumes of Dede M. Ayite (assisted by Johanna Pan) or the fabulous hair and makeup Dave Bova has devised when you can go see them yourself so affordably. For tonight's 7:30 PM performance Steppenwolf is offering a special two-for-one ticket deal in connection with one of its immersive "Explore" events: a preperformance fashion show at 5:30 PM at 758 W. North, Steppenwolf's rehearsal hall. There Carolyn Hoerdemann will host a group of local designers who'll present clothes inspired by the play for critique from a panel of fashion experts. (A presentation by "international performance artist Joseph Ravens" is also promised.) Chez Moi provides the edibles and DJ Maxime Bonnard will spin house and French pop—and it's all free, though space is limited.
To try to reserve a spot at "Explore: The World of Marie Antoinette," call Steppenwolf at 312-335-1650. Tickets for the play can be purchased at the same number or online; use code 19959 to get the two-for-one special for tonight's performance.
Marie Antoinette Through 5/10: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, steppenwolf.org, $20-$86.