Let them eat cake! The infamous words that everyone attributes to Marie Antoinette. But did you know that she never actually said those words? In a full-disclosure, up-close-and-personal one-on-one interview with Woolly Mammoth Company Member Kimberly Gilbert, we go in depth with the actress about what it has been like getting ready to take on the iconic role of Marie as Woolly opens their 35th season of “Let them Eat” with the show Marie Antoinette.
If you wouldn’t mind by starting us off with a little introduction of who you are, what you do in the Washington DC area, and where the readers might have seen you last, that would be great!
Kimberly Gilbert: Hi! I’m Kimberly Gilbert and I am a Woolly company member and you may have seen me in such shows as Stupid Fucking Bird, Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, Vibrator Play, a lot of things. But most recently it would be Stupid Fucking Bird which we just remounted and I played Mash.
So you’re no stranger to Woolly. Now you’re here taking on the title role of Marie Antoinette, can you tell us a little bit about the show itself and what that’s been like for you?
Kimberly: Yeah! This is a beautiful play written by David Adjmi. It premiered about a year and a half ago, but don’t quote me on that. It’s a relatively new work. They did a production of it last year at SOHO Rep and it had a production before that at A.R.T. but this here will be the DC regional premier. It tells the story of Marie’s journey from when she’s 18— when she’s relatively new to the throne having gone from the Dauphine to Queen right around that time— to her 37-year-old head-chopping off state. It goes to the end of the line.
The story tells the journey of her at her most extravagant and rebellious in France. It’s about her leaving Versailles and having her little estate next to this huge castle. And then we get the true start of the smear campaign against her that helped lead to her beheaded ending.
Now this is not a one-woman show, this is a cast of nine, I do believe? Ten maybe because there are two little guys, well a little guy and a little girl, who are alternating for Marie’s son in the show. You know most people forget that she had children. She had four of them.
How historically accurate would you say the production is in comparison to what we read in the history books about Marie’s life?
Kimberly: The events that occurs? Those landmarks that hit in the play did actually happen. But definitely not the dialogue, definitely not the magical realism. Some things are definitely altered for artistic purposes. But the heart of the show is a great leap into the world of this girl that becomes a woman in the largest public eye that you could imagine. That is very real.
Marie Antoinette is not a fictional character, obviously, she’s a real person from history. What is that like for you as an actor to take on a role that the audience may or may not have preconceived notions about how she is meant to be seen or what they expect to see regarding what they know of her?
This specifically was amazing to work on because everybody has a preconceived notion about Marie Antoinette. There are three things that people say about her. 1. She was ridiculous and frilly and extravagant. 2. She said “Let them eat cake!” 3. She had her head chopped off. And that’s what we think we know about Marie Antoinette.
I got this great biography in January and I have been reading it ever since. It is so heartbreaking to know that there is documented facts about the actual person that is Marie Antoinette but still hundreds of years later we still think of her as this two-dimensional thing who said “Let them eat cake!” and had her head chopped off. The most heartbreaking thing about that is that she never actually said “Let them eat cake!”
There may have been something where she alluded to it or said something like that, but that exact phrase had been attributed to other princesses prior to her. To this day we don’t see her in the public eye the way she really was because the revolution was so grand and so important and there were dire circumstances that drove people to take over, so that is what we remember. Of course you’re not going to remember this silly little girl that got shipped over from Austria when she was 14. She got married at 14 and was the Dauphine until she was 18 or 19 and then the king died and she and her husband Louis became the King and Queen of France.
She was just this pretty little thing that had lived this very cloistered existence and then suddenly she was thrust into the spotlight. She had this existence where she was this perfect little doll, and she came into her own with hormones as a teenager and suddenly it became “Well, fuck you, I’m going to do what I want. And I am going to be extravagant.” She had no concept of consequence. She had no concept of budget. She was royal in Austria and she was royal in France. She was raised in the most lavish of circumstances where everybody was rich. So she had no concept of responsibility. Overnight she was turned from the sweetest little thing to look at to this Austrian whore that brought ruin to the country of France.
Unfortunately, they needed a scapegoat. They needed to blame something. She was perfect. The timing couldn’t’ have been more perfect. She was 19 and being rebellious, so it was so easy for them to say “look how lavish she’s being. Look at how horrible she is.” That’s what I’ve enjoyed most working on with her as a historical character, seeing her as real. Getting to see someone that we usually treat as a two-dimensional cut-out on a wall or in a painting; finding her humanity has been so rewarding. I am so grateful that I get to discover that in her.
Of course I’m grateful for being in the play and doing the show and having the opportunity to say these wonderful words that David (Playwright David Adjmi) has given me. But mainly it’s the opportunity to educate myself about the life of this girl that we just threw to the wolves for a grand and beautiful purpose, but it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, it was the royals, the men in power at Versailles— the old guard, the estate holders, the ones that racked up all the debt— they’re the ones that went into the slums of Paris and sent around these pamphlets and drawings to rile the people up and blame her.
It’s not just a story about a queen. It’s about a young girl that never had a choice to do anything ever. And then within two years she went suddenly from being this beautiful thing that everybody loved and idolized to being hissed at and booed and a social pariah. Not even, she became a demon. The demonizing of her was massive.
You brought up an interesting thought here. You just said that you learned that she never actually said “Let them eat cake!” Yet Woolly is using that line as the tagline for this show. How do you juxtapose knowing that against how that is used to tie this show into the overarching theme of the season “Let them eat?”
Kimberly: I think what it can do, and what I hope that this play does, is that we have this image of her at the beginning. What do we remember? “Let them eat cake.” Ha.Ha.Ha.Ha. Hopefully at the end of the play you’ll see that she was an actual human being. So let’s start with this preconceived notion of her and break it down. The whole season is about the “haves” and the “have-nots.” This term that we have for her was a way to show the world or to inspire the “have-nots” to revolt against the “haves” to get them to revolt against the people in power. The photo they took of me is fantastic, with all the licorice in my mouth and it shows you something. She was a pop-star. She was this icon. And at the top of the show we’ll be showing that thing, this product that she was made into. What hopefully the show does is strip all that away and what you end up with is this human being. I think that’s the core of why we’re doing this show as a part of this season. She was a “have” and becomes a “have-not.”
The reason that I love it so much is because I get to see her as just a human. The revolution was a grand thing, but you know that you had to sacrifice a human being. It wasn’t a queen. It wasn’t a demon. It was a person. You chopped the head off of an innocent person. Not a murderer, not a criminal, a symbol. You took that away from an ordinary human being.
What has been the biggest challenge of taking on this role, particularly when it comes to humanzing this demon and fitting that into the concepts of the director and the playwright?
Kimberly: So far I think the biggest challenge has been letting myself— let me preface that by saying that I’m kind of in love with her and in love with her innocence— that it has been such a big challenge to let her go to that place where she’s an asshole. Letting her go to be a bitch. We’ve been in rehearsal for a few weeks now and I’ve embraced that. Letting her lash out, going for those mistakes that she’s made? That’s what being a human is. She wasn’t this angelic thing. She wasn’t a demon. She was a human. She was flawed. Flawed just like everybody else. And I think that was the main challenge because I was so protective of her. But now I see it. She has got to go to those places so that we can see her humanity.
How does this differ from other roles that you’ve tackled recently?
Kimberly: I think like with Mash in Stupid Fucking Bird, or other roles that I’ve been doing there have been many more question marks that I have had to fill in on my own or with the director and the playwright. Who is this person, what is their humanity, all of those questions that needed to be filled in. We build those characters from the inside out. With Marie I started with this thing that was full and three-dimensional; she was an actual person who existed so I had to strip it down and work from the outside in. I think that’s the main thing that is different in terms of my approach to the character.
What is it that you want people to take away with them when they see this show?
Kimberly: That in such an extravagant, elaborate existence like the one that Marie lived in? Despite all that? She was still a human. We talked about this at the beginning of rehearsals. The one thing that I really loved so much about Stupid Fucking Bird was that we were all in the space. Humans in the seats as audiences and actors on stage and there was no line. There was no barrier. I want that metaphorically to happen with this play.
I think that with the design— the set is just mindblowingly wonderful and the wigs and costumes too— but with all of the extravagant, magical elements in the design, we need to make sure that the history of the reality and the contemporary of the now meet so that you don’t sit back and go “oh yes, that happened to them, I cannot relate.” We really want to make sure, and I think that Yuri (Director Yuri Urnov) has done a great job of making sure that as lavish and as extreme as we go with these people in this world that it is anchored with a reality and a contemporary nature that makes us go “Oh, wait, that could have been us.” It’s interchangeable and it’s about the situations that we’re brought up in.
The cast is friggen’ phenomenal. There are newcomers. We have children in the show— I’ll be acting with a child! This is the first time that I’ll be in a play at Woolly with a child! That’s exciting. We have three company members in it: me, Sarah Marshall, and Dawn Ursula. I’m working with old friends and with new people which is lovely. It’s a pretty large cast for a Woolly show. The caliber of talent on stage is going to be quite captivating and I think that’s going to be enough to pull people in. So come see it!