Dilettante: More than meets the eye in
'The Color of Flesh' at Portland Stage
The plot seems simple: A young artist worms her way into the court of Marie Antoinette, and succeeds in becoming not only the queen's favorite portrait painter but also her best friend. Eventually these two married women both fall in love with the same man, yet their friendship endures right up to the guillotine.
Portland Stage's current offering, "Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh," reads like a soap opera, but the play has surprising intellectual depth. While navigating their love triangle, the three characters — and us — are forced to confront a number of serious issues, such as the ethics of an artist in portraying truth vs. beauty, what responsibility the rich bear toward the poor, and how much violence the masses should use in their fight against economic inequality. The artist, a true-life person named Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, spent years perfecting a technique for creating a realistic flesh tone, using layer upon layer of paint to capture light until the canvas seemed to glow from within. In "The Color of Flesh," playwright Joel Gross similarly piles idea upon idea to create a multi-layered script that brings to life these historical characters and simultaneously sheds light on today's current questions regarding poverty, privilege and power.
Director Daniel Burson admirably injected plenty of movement and set a quick pace to keep the dialog-heavy script from bogging down. Costume designer Hugh Hanson's enormous and gorgeous gowns, ornate wigs and beautiful masks are a delight. Anita Stewart's clever set works well, seamlessly transitioning from the artist's studios in Paris and Vienna, to various rooms and gardens at Versailles, and finally to a prison cell. Bryon Winn's lighting adds to the illusions; especially effective are shadows of trees to create a garden and lights that instantly lay a brown-and-tan fleur-de-lis carpet over the stage floor. My only quibbles, and they are tiny ones, are the monotone set (meant to resemble an artist's sketch, it just looks unfinished against the sumptuousness of the colorful gowns) and the reappearance of the same flower arrangement in scenes that are years apart.
The cast consists of only three people; not only do they have to carry the show, but they must age before our eyes as the play covers a span of 19 years. Their maturation is believably portrayed and fascinating to watch. Tony Roach plays Count Alexis, a fictional invention of the author. He is delightfully flirty in his early days and appropriately impassioned during the revolutionary years. Caroline Hewitt plays the artist Elisa with spark and spirit, a young woman dedicated to her art and willing to do whatever it takes to advance her career. She is an obsequious sycophant in the early scenes but ends as a guilt-ridden refugee who flees France and her friend while the revolution builds to its bloody crescendo. Best of all is Ellen Adair, playing Marie Antoinette. As a teenage bride, she is by turns flighty and imperious, insecure and entitled, utterly clueless yet somehow charming even while defending the divine right of kings and maintaining that "not all people are born with the same rights ... a count is not the same as a peasant." As the years go on she evolves into a wiser woman, never quite grasping the subtleties of politics but at least becoming self-aware of her flaws. She ultimately develops the strength of character to face her execution with dignity and grace.
In her earlier years Elisa complains of art critics who object to her "prettifying" her subjects, but she boasts to Alexis that "I can make anyone beautiful," even the queen, whom she describes as "uneducated, colorless and her jaw is too big." But as the years pass the artist learns how to "look for the goodness in a subject's heart." While accepting that "every face has its imperfections," she now strives to have her portraits "reveal the goodness of the soul."
In the same way, this play looks like a pretty trifle on its surface, but by Act II it reveals, with insight and compassion, the fears and flaws and innate goodness in the souls of even the most materialistic members of the "1 percent."