By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
In the last fourteen months, he's been in three productions of the play, so you might think Steven Rattazzi has learned everything he can about Marie Antoinette, David Adjmi's darkly comic spin on the downfall of France's most infamous queen. However, there are elements of the show he's just beginning to understand.
Not that there haven't been constants: Rattazzi has always played King Louis XVI, whom Adjmi imagines as naïve and fearful, incapable of making decisions while the French rise against him. Bumbling through the play, he vacillates between infantile lunacy and heartbreaking cluelessness, like a manic clown and a frightened deer all at once.
When Rattazzi originally played Louis, last fall at Cambridge's American Repertory Theater and then at Yale Rep a few months later, he was in a much different production. There were towering wigs and elaborate sets and even a scene where dirt rained from the sky. In its current incarnation at Soho Rep, almost all those flourishes have been stripped away. Now, the set is mostly a massive white wall with "Marie Antoinette" spelled out in large, off-white letters. The costumes and wigs are much more modest, and when they're not performing, the cast simply watches from the sides of the stage.
The result puts our focus on emotional and intellectual battles. Even in outlandish moments, like when a talking sheep saunters on to make a political argument, there's a coiled intensity to the action. We can't forget we're watching a drama, and not just a bit of pageantry.
That speaks directly to what Rattazzi has been learning about his performance. At first, he says, "I had an instant connection to the play and an assumption of, 'Oh, I know David Adjmi. I worked on his play Stunning at LCT3.' But the director and I worked hard on, 'Well, you don't exactly have it. I want to go deeper.'"
In other words, Rattazzi was already familiar with Adjmi's sharply funny writing, but director Rebecca Taichman, who has helmed all three productions of Marie Antoinette, wanted more than laughs. "Rebecca loves the comedy in David's plays," Rattazzi says. "But she really wanted to deepen and strengthen the core of the relationships so that all of the comedy comes from a very deep place."<!--more-->
Rattazzi has used the Soho Rep production to find more vulnerability in comedic scenes, like when Louis discusses a medical procedure that will make him fertile. "His fear of having his operation and dealing with his predicament with his penis: That's an obviously funny line, and it was a real screwball comedy, blurt-it-out-loud-and-fast moment," he says. "But it's changed from that. Because of the intimacy of the space at Soho Rep and the deepening of the play, they don't want that formal lazzi of a comic bit. It's not that that wasn't effective or didn't have a connection, but now it's going deeper."
He stresses, though, that it's not just the stripped-down production that has led him to a richer portrayal of his character. "In my actor's head, it's part of one long process," he says. "There are things at the heart of the work---David Adjmi's play and the director's dialogue with that---that have been there since the beginning. It's not like there's a marker of, 'Here was the A play, and now we're in the B play.' There's been continual work. I'm still working on the same part."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Pavel Antonov