Toss out the question, “What comes to mind when you hear the name Marie Antoinette?” and many will reply with the infamous line, “Let them eat cake.” She has historically been portrayed as a frivolous woman, oblivious to the plight of her people. But what do we really know about the last queen of France?

Playwright Joel Gross blends fact and imagination in “Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh,” painting a sympathetic image of the woman behind the opulence.

Caught up in a love triangle with a fictional nobleman, Count Alexis de Ligne (Tony Roach), and her real-life portrait artist and friend, Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun (Caroline Hewitt), Gross’ Marie Antoinette (Ellen Adair) struggles to come to grips with her public image.

Gross strips away the facade, and, with every literary brushstroke, also draws a correlation between the social-political happenings of then and now. Have things really changed?

The art of language is all too often lost in today’s society. Yet that definitely wasn’t the case Friday night. Portland Stage’s rendition of “Marie Antoinette” sizzled with wordplay befitting the 18th century. It was a time when words were carefully chosen for maximum effect, and Adair, Hewitt and Roach artfully captured the beauty, duplicity and seductiveness of each turn of phrase.

Costume designer Hugh Hanson has nailed the visual allure of the period with luscious costumes that are absolutely breathtaking. They are eye-catching window dressing on a deceptively simple set that magically transforms with the blink of an eye.

By giving the set a minimalist look, artistic director Anita Stewart shifts the focus to not only the sumptuous clothing, but also to the actors and the intriguing characters they colorfully portray.

Hewitt delivered a passionate performance Friday as Elisa, a strong-willed portrait artist struggling to achieve notoriety in a male-dominated profession. For added realism, the New York-based actress tapped into the artistic knowledge of her dad, Maine sculptor Duncan Hewitt. It was a sort of homecoming for the actress, who was born in Portland and raised in Falmouth.

Naivete, longing and untapped strength mingled in Adair’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette, giving depth, color and texture to what historically has been a two-dimensional rendering of the French queen.

Roach nicely rounded out the intimate cast, delivering a believable performance as the handsome, philandering count, who unexpectedly finds himself in love with two very different women.

“Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh” is a tragic tale of love and lust amidst revolution. It’s a play that dusts off the history books, encouraging viewers to imagine the people behind the dry facts.

After all, more than 200 years may have passed, but the issues of Marie Antoinette’s reign still echo in society today. Class, status and societal expectations still force us to wear many masks. And the count’s pronouncement that the “middle-class is being taxed back into the poverty of which it came,” could just as easily have come from the lips of any number of reformists today.

April Boyle is a free-lance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

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