Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh is Joel Gross's tale of a love triangle involving the ill-fated queen during the two decades leading to the French Revolution. Superbly directed by Robert Kalfin and beautifully acted by a cast of four (one in a nonspeaking role), this romantic drama presented by Earl Productions is history made intriguing and delicious. There are inherent dangers in the creation of historical drama. If it's too heavy-handed in the history, nuanced human characterization suffers; if it's excessive in the emotional drama, the political element seems like the awkward, hollow context for a romance novel. Assisted by Kalfin's well-tempered direction, Gross gracefully sidesteps both potential pitfalls. The result is a drama in which the social and political standings of each of the characters are as wickedly intertwined as lovers' limbs and as crucial to the tale as the trio's amorous intentions.
The play opens with a scene early in the acquaintance of the social-climbing portrait artist Elisabeth le Brun (Samantha Ives) and one of her subjects, the rakish but politically idealistic nobleman Count Alexis de Ligne (Jonathan Kells Phillips). As the two eventual paramours, Ives and Phillips banter with audience-winning charm and verve. Even as their carefully stoked sexual tension renders their romantic entanglement a mere eventuality, they convey the agendas nearer their hearts. Le Brun wants to parlay the association into an introduction with the ingénue Queen in hopes of becoming the Queen's portrait artist, while the Count speaks starry-eyed of empowering the peasant masses.
Enter Amanda Jones as "Toinette" the sheltered daughter of Empress Maria Teresa of Austria, bred to please family and King and to symbolize the relationship between two nations—but also to keep her nose out of political affairs. As the naïve, homesick Queen yearning for friendship and the sensation of feeling like a desirable woman (yens fulfilled, respectively, by le Brun and the Count), Jones conveys a royal's dignity and a schoolgirl's delight. Convincingly transitioning from innocent to disillusioned in this 20-years-in-two-hours tale, Jones impresses throughout. Perhaps most memorably, she sparkles in a hilarious scene recounting the Queen's first sexual experience.
Ives and Phillips demonstrate range as well. As the Count, Phillips is no one-note playboy. Years fighting in the American Revolution under Lafayette turn his debonair idealist into a man of convincing depth and understated innocence lost. Ives balances ambition with sincerity and seems equally comfortable with drawing-room wit and boudoir intimacy. A bit of a quibble, but a slight increase in le Brun's early Machiavellianism would yield a more powerful payoff when, in the midst of revolution, she eventually declares her loyalty.
The fourth cast member, Hugo Salazar, serves the pragmatic function of setting the stage before each scene, but in this nonspeaking servant role he also reminds the audience of his class's pivotal voice in the outcome of the story. To his credit, Salazar embodies the positive aspect of the cliché about there being no small roles—wordless, he is variously dignified, endearing, and comical.
Directorial and design choices succeed in alluding to the lavishness of the play's locales without distracting from what must be the highlight of the presentation—the actors' apt portrayals of Gross's carefully drawn characters. Sumptuous costumes by designer T. Michael Hall are the production's one perfectly chosen concession to the expected visual drama of historical romance. As the backdrop for a few easily rearranged furniture pieces, Kevin Judge's simple, off-kilter white scenic space is an effective and versatile design choice for a play that might have tempted a lesser designer-director team into counterproductive opulence.
Paul Hudson's lighting design achieves its task with similar elegance; projected title cards and the outline of an imposing Versailles window are the few elaborations in a space whose lighting options are limited. Merek Royce Press's sound design transports the audience from ball to opera to garden with a few well-chosen and modulated ambient tracks.
Though the tale is fictional (especially regarding the Count), the three characters' predicaments make for a compelling, passionate, and memorable lesson in history and the heart. As historical drama, this succeeds where many in the genre disappoint. In short, if history lessons were all like this, no one would ever cut class.