David Adjmi and 'Marie Antoinette': Finding the 'terrible beauty' of theater

by Alicia Anstead

Playwright David Adjmi has had his big moments in New York City, where his work has been produced -- Elective Affinities, a site-specific Off-Broadway hit starring four-time Tony winner Zoe Caldwell, Stunning atLincoln Center and Caligula at Soho Rep. His riff on the 1970s TV show Three's Company, the play 3C, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, thrust him into the news with a question about copyright , sampling, the legality of lampooning and the boundaries of creativity. Now, Adjmi is having a big moment in Cambridge. His play Marie Antoinette, a collaboration between Harvard's American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre, is running through Sept. 29 at the Loeb Drama Center. But Adjmi's biggest moments happen during his own passionate engagement with theater. Harvard Arts Blog asked him to reflect on his newest play, his experience of theater and advice for young playwrights. Adjmi will talk about his work in a Learning From Performers Q&A 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 24 at Farkas Hall.

What type of play is "Marie Antoinette"? Is it farce? comedy? political?

I don't think it's a farce, but I do think it has aspects of screwball comedy. It also has aspects of very old-fashioned German romantic tragedy. My work tends to shutter back and forth between genre as an expressive response to psychic states of the characters. I guess the play is expressionist tragedy with elements of screwball comedy. It sounds dreadful, but it is probably true.

What intrigues you about your lead character, Marie Antoinette?

She is a farrago of crazy contradictions. She's flawed and narcissistic and horrible and hilariously dry and has enormous unexplored depths under the shiny gossamer surface. She's a pain in the ass, but I find her tremendously lovable. She's someone who is genuinely exploring the limits of her own agency and privilege and responsibility within a very complex historical moment. I think she's sort of a villain, and she's sort of a naif, and I find that combination really interesting.

People go to theater for lots of reasons. Some strictly for entertainment. Others for enlightenment. Others for escapism. Why do you go to theater?

I go to the theater for a number of reasons. I do like plays that are extremely electrifying and heightened. I love to escape in the theater -- by escape I don't mean 'escapism' -- I mean escaping into the spiritual center of things, away from the noise and the surface distractions that we call reality. The Greeks called this escape "ecstasy," which means literally to leave one's body. I love to laugh in the theater, and I love to weep and feel connected to grief and what Yeats called terrible beauty and Kant called the sublime. I don't like plays that keep me in my head and bandy smart ideas. I like plays that go deeper, that burrow into my unconscious, plays that are brave enough to contradict themselves. And I think farce and light comedy and musicals can have those deep structures, too, not just the heavy stuff.

What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights at Harvard (or anywhere, really)?

I don't think people should fetishize their "ideas" for plays too much -- it really happens in the act of writing, and you can't always control what's going to happen in advance. Don't be afraid of flawed characters, and don't be afraid of your own flaws -- embrace everything. Don't compartmentalize your art from your life -- you can write about the things that panic and terrify and obsess you; but when you give that stuff to your characters you've got to let them run with it. Tell the truth but, to quote Emily Dickinson, tell it slant. Embrace ambiguity in your writing but write with the violence of articulation -- don't be half-assed.

What's going on with your play 3C?

I'm talking to some lawyers and I guess we'll see. :)

[Caption: Playwright David Adjmi (right) with "Marie Antoinette" director Rebecca Taichman. PHOTO: Courtesy American Repertory Theater. ]