The Color of Flesh
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
April 6, 2007
"You are so very good with the surface of things," says Marie Antoinette to her friend and portrait artist Elisabeth le Brun at one point in Joel Gross's new play The Color of Flesh. It is a fitting compliment for a socialite in 18th-century France, in the years just before the Revolution when the two women first become acquainted. But a surface show is only part of the story—as this staging from Earl Productions soon proves.
Le Brun begins the play as an aspiring painter trying to escape from a childhood spent in poverty. One of her subjects—and an occasional paramour—is the Count Alexis de Ligne, a charming nobleman with a reputation as a Lothario. Le Brun sees her romance with the Count as the perfect chance to become acquainted with France's new queen, Marie Antoinette, and to become the Queen's official portrait artist. Le Brun convinces the Count to charm the young Queen; but the Count is a romantic in his ideals as well as in his affairs, and uses his audience with the Queen to press forward his political ideas of revolution and equality as well. For her part, Marie, just barely out of her teens and homesick for her native Austria, welcomes the companionship of them both, and by the time the Count sails for America on a quixotic mission to serve under Lafayette in the Revolutionary War, Marie is just as worried about his well being as is Le Brun. Over the play's 20-year span, covering the decades just before the French Revolution, the three are irrevocably altered as the Count encounters real revolution, Le Brun's pursuit of "beauty" starts ringing hollow, and Marie grows more desperate for real companions she can trust.
As Marie Antoinette, Amanda Jones ably gives the most nuanced performance of the night; her character needs to go from being a sheltered, naïve ingénue of 18 to a disillusioned—and dethroned—woman of almost 40. The play takes a sympathetic view of her character, and even comes up with a very plausible defense for the famous "let them eat cake" quip; but rather than being saintly, she is presented as ill-prepared, struggling as best she knows in a situation where she is way over her head, and when even her closest friends are a little too awed by her title to give good counsel. Jones, a veteran of Jean Cocteau Rep, rises to the performance with aplomb. But Samantha Ives and Jonathan Kells Phillips also do admirably as Le Brun and the Count, whether engaging in playful banter at the show's opening, or in a heartfelt meeting of the minds towards the show's close. In their scenes with Marie Antoinette, they also walk a fine line between genuine friendship and the admiration of loyal subjects.
Even the "servants" are well served—Hugo Salazar, in the non-speaking role of a footman, sets the stage before each new scene, but as the French Revolution draws near, you can see the smiling graciousness with which he conducts his duties start to give way to a peasant's frustration.
That set, designed by Kevin Judge, is Spartan in its simplicity, with only a few pieces of furniture and a bare white wall standing in for scenes in Paris, Versailles, and Vienna. But I didn't miss a more elaborate set at all: the tiny 45th Street Theater would have been overwhelmed by anything larger, and the cast, richly outfitted in T. Michael Hall's costumes, were even more highlighted by the sparseness of their surroundings. Similarly, the most elaborate lighting effects from designer Paul Hudson are a series of projected title cards giving the date before each scene, and Merek Royce Press's sound design also just gives us a touch of birdsong in the garden here, a hint of a waltz at the Paris Opera there. Clearly, director Robert Kalfin knows that the characters and the story are the real stars of this show, and sought to concentrate chiefly on them rather than trying to recreate the gardens at Versailles onstage and dazzling us with a surface show—for appearances and the surface of things may be pretty, but they aren't the whole story.