Stanton Welch’s three-act ballet Marie makes for a dramatic ending to the Houston Ballet’s current season with some of the choreographer’s most intense and expressive work.
The on-stage character Marie suffers from the same image problem as the real-life Marie Antoinette: a decided lack of sympathy. She was a spoiled rich girl who either through indifference or willful ignorance failed to understand the suffering of the French people. And her extravagant, scandalous lifestyle, no doubt, contributed to the downfall of the French monarchy. So it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her, no matter how gruesome her ultimate fate, but that’s exactly what Welch asks of the audience.
And to a large part, he gets it.
The story opens in Marie’s Austrian home, where she’s surrounded by a loving and indulgent family. (Melody Mennite appears as Marie, with Karina González alternating.) Marie’s brother, Joseph II (Luzemberg Santana) and the French ambassador (Harper Watters) have arranged Marie’s marriage to the future king of France, Louis XVI (Ian Casady).
Watters is excellent as the supercilious, mincing French ambassador who inspects the young Marie as if she were a piece of meat before approving of her.
Marie’s mother, the empress of Austria Maria Theresa (a regal Estheysis Menendez) has a few last-minute instructions for her 14-year-old daughter, coaching her as to the proper queenly stance and royal wave.
Once in France, Marie is stripped (literally) of all her belongings and molded according to the custom of the French court. Her soon-to-be sister-in-law Elizabeth (Mónica Gómez) coldly supervises the abrupt transformation.
Presented at court, Marie meets and quickly marries Louis XVI. It’s an awkward, loveless match made all the more difficult by the king’s demand that the two immediately produce an heir.
The couple is pushed into a bedchamber (a wonderful bit of set design, a huge box with translucent walls that open and close to reveal an enormous bed). The members of the royal court linger outside the chamber waiting for news that the marriage has been consummated and an heir conceived.
Marie, for her part, is willing if unsure of the exact mechanics of lovemaking. She throws herself into Louis’ arms, offers herself up repeatedly, but Louis is resolute in his refusal to touch her. Over and over the pair exit the bedchamber exactly as they went in, one virginal and the other impotent.
The king’s mistress Madame du Barry (Jessica Collado) ridicules the young Marie, blatantly encouraging everyone else to do the same. She ruthlessly mocks Marie and Louis, patting Marie’s barren belly and mimics Louis’ impotence with a wicked flick of her fan. Collado seems to genuinely relish her role as court agitator and her performance is among the night’s highlights.
Welch previously said he didn’t make the Louis XVI character gay. Perhaps not, but he did leave him a bit of an empty pants. It takes a visit from Marie’s brother Joseph to convince the young couple to actually copulate. When the marriage is finally consummated at the end of Act One (it supposedly took seven years in real life), the audience breathes a sigh of relief along with the members of the court.
The second act opens to a party scene. Marie and Louis are now queen and king, and the young royals preside over a festive, frivolous court.
Marie was at times unsure of herself in Act One, her movements hesitant, even graceless. In Act Two, as the fashionable head of court, she’s exuberant and agile. When handsome Swedish count Axel Fersen (Connor Walsh) arrives, she quickly falls in love with him and begins a not-so-secret affair. The romantic spark that’s sorely missing from Marie’s relationship with Louis is abundantly evident in her dalliance with the count. The party scene also allows for some high-flying leaps and turns by the men in the cast, especially Charles-Louis Yoshiyama and Chun Wai Chan.
Amidst the merriment, a somber Duc d’Orléans (Linnar Looris) arrives with dour news about unrest among the peasants, but Marie ignores him. Just then revolutionaries break in to the party, terrorizing the royals and their courtiers. Marie’s confidant, Princess de Lamballe (Karina González) is dragged from the party and viciously beheaded.
The third act features some of the most intense and masterful work Welch has created for Houston Ballet. The curtain opens to an ugly scene. At the Revolutionary Tribunal, French peasants surrounding a very still and stoic Marie, who sits center stage, back to the audience. They threaten her, point accusing fingers at her and silently scream their rage. She remains unmoved. The stage is bare, save a few black curtains. A blood red stripe splits the backdrop in two. Moving as individuals and in unison, the crowd is raw and wonderful.
From there, the action moves to the royal family’s prison cell. Marie’s lover Swedish Count Axel Fersen arrives with an escape plan for her, but she refuses. Their pas de deux aches with painful resignation as he leaves her to her fate.
When the Duc d’Orléans arrives to escort Louis to the guillotine, Marie and Louis have a tender goodbye. While their marriage was loveless at the start, somewhere along the way the two eventually develop a deep connection, evident by their moving farewell. Given the limits of a three-act ballet, that’s one aspect of the story that Welch is unable to develop on stage and the audience must rely on program notes to fill in the missing pieces.
Marie’s sister-in-law and son are also summarily removed. And then it’s Marie’s turn to meet the guillotine. The drama here is at its height, but not the heartbreak. That comes in the ballet’s final moment.
Marie’s brother Joseph retrieves her daughter (Angelina Roldan), the only member of the royal family to survive, and returns her to the safety of Austria. Ensconced in the luxury of the royal household, the girl sits at a keyboard, recreating a scene of her mother’s happy youth. In the distance, a ghostly Marie appears waving her goodbye. The child lifts her hand, returning a perfect royal wave before collapsing in tears.
Thru June 23. Tickets from $25. Wortham Theater Center, 615 Texas Ave. 713-227-2787. More info and tickets at houstonballet.org.