By Jann Simmons, Melanie McNair, and Gerard Breitenbeck
Marie Antoinette—of Philadelphia’s Bastille Day celebration—is Terry Berch McNally, co-owner of London Grill and Paris Wine Bar in Philly’s Fairmount neighborhood. Twenty-one years ago, she and another Fairmount restaurant owner, Michel Notredame (who has since passed), asked the prison to do a reenactment of the storming of the Bastille.
July is slow for Fairmount restaurants who celebrate the French holiday with foie gras, champagne, and other specialty items. The two proprietors looked to the walls of the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) and asked, “Why not?” ESP staff concurred. McNally offered to play Marie Antoinette since she was the only female restaurant owner. They called other restaurants, Sean Kelly of ESP wrote a script, and together they birthed a party.
At first, McNally bore the expense. “For the first ten years, it was hard. It wasn’t cost effective,” she said. But with the growth of ESP as a cultural institution, their ability to pay for the event and hire the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, McNally’s role shifted. “Now I’m a prop. I come and throw Tastykakes and then make everybody follow me to my restaurant for the party afterwards.”
Now in its 21st year, Bastille Day is one of Philadelphia’s biggest parties, with 10,000 people filling the lanes of Fairmount and reaching to catch one of the 3,000 Tastykakes tossed from the top of the penitentiary.
McNally learned about Marie Antoinette over the years and said that the ill-fated queen always stood up to what was wrong in the world. The reenactment has never been historically accurate; instead writers base the script on current events. This year, school funding in Philadelphia, Hobby Lobby, and gay marriage were some of the targets of the cabaret’s political satire.
The script never gets too heated, though. McNally attributes the success of the annual party to the willingness for all involved to make fun of themselves and to not take any of it too seriously.
“It’s one of the best events Philly has. It’s tongue-in-cheek. The French come. Swarthmore brings a bus of French students. It’s very Rocky-Horror-Picture-Show, interactive. People bring water guns. It’s goofy, silly.”
Fortunately for this Marie, each year she gets a reprieve from the guillotine, as the Pennsylvania Prison Society is against capital punishment. No actual beheadings are allowed.
“Marie got a bad rap,” McNally insisted. “She was from Vienna; she didn’t want to be the queen of France. It wasn’t her fault. She was a scapegoat.” McNally’s Marie, a larger-than-life figure with giant wig and massive hot pink dress, carries a bottle of champagne.
Is McNally a revolutionary or does she have aristocratic sympathies? McNally says, as a small business owner, she has to be fiscally conservative. “No one is helping small businesses. That’s why I’m doing this.” She adds that she, like many of her fellow Philadelphians, is a revolutionary at heart.
John Jarboe is the new force behind the over-the-top Festival. Jarboe is the founder and artistic director of the Bearded Ladies. Three years ago—in 2011—they performed a short act at the end of the festival. It was so successful that the next year ESP provided a budget. Now the performance is “a two-hour spectacle, an anachronistic and irreverent representation of the French Revolution,” Jarboe said.
Jarboe, who wrote the lyrics for the musical numbers, played Edith Piaf. “We were going for the lowest common denominator. She was the self-appointed voice of Paris.”
ESP has been hugely supportive of the Bearded Ladies. In fact, Sean Kelley, ESP’s Senior VP and Director of Public Programming, donned the executioner’s mask and dragged a hapless watermelon to a twenty-five-foot guillotine for the performance. As the crowd joined the count-down, it felt like a sweetly macabre New Year’s Eve—a countdown to the new France of old. It was surreal to cheer for a mock beheading (or to nearly cheer for it). But part of the charm of Bastille Day is that it’s at once absurd, contradictory, tongue-in-cheek, provocative, and just plain fun.
Clearly, whatever politics Bastille Day might have, they won’t air on CNN or land in the ballot box. This is public theater at its best—topical but absurdist, accessible but surreal, fun but not glib. It’s also damn entertaining—there’s more to love in the breakneck hour of the Bearded Ladies’ performance than in most two-hour films. And whether the crowd counted down, shouted “Now!” to call for revolution, or quietly supported the present order, Tastykakes rained just the same. Yes, Marie Antoinette, her partner-in-nastiness Tonya Harding, and their supporting cast of other Maries, hurled 3,000 Tastykakes from the roof of the Bastille: a siege and a catered celebration, all at once.
The scriptwriters appropriated Marie Antoinette, Tonya Harding, Edith Piaf, Ben Franklin, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, and a giant baguette for the Bastille Day Festival to embody the win-at-any-cost brutalism hiding behind the faces of both governments and mobs.
Kelley, along with Terry McNally, is a 21-year Bastille Day Festival veteran. It’s clear that the neighborhood loves this event. “It’s good for the local businesses, it’s good for the neighbors,” Kelley mused, adding that it forwards ESP’s reputation as a museum with a sense of humor as well as a serious social mission.
As much as he loves the levity of Bastille Day, Kelley admits, “My favorite events are our regular tours.” Regarding the museum’s increased focus on the US prison system, Kelley is genial but passionate. “This is the best place in the United States to talk about American criminal justice,” he explained. “What comes out of this conversation, what [visitors] take away, is their business. But we are here to say, ‘[the US prison system] has been changing quickly, it’s continuing to change, and we’re playing roles, even if we’re ignoring it.’” Kelley stressed that the mission of the museum is to not dictate the terms of this conversation, but simply to invite people into a dialogue, not only with history, but with present and future.
“We’re getting good at it,” he added, betraying more optimism than pride. He smiled at the thought, or maybe he was just excited to don a black mask, take a step back in time, and be the sexy executioner who carved watermelon for the people.
The sun beat mercilessly on the mottled gray walls of the fortress. The palpable tension creased the faces of the packed crowd. Anticipation built. Suddenly, in all black, the Sexy Executioner appeared at the guillotine. The Revolutionaries roared as he held the first victim aloft before aligning it with the blade. He sought the crowd’s approval: thumbs up or thumbs down? Execution or freedom? With the victim’s fate decided, the countdown began. “3, 2, 1. . .” The knife fell with a sickening thud as it severed the aristocratic watermelon. Its pink flesh exposed, bits clinging to the green skin, the Sexy Executioner divvied the portions amongst the crowd who feasted hungrily, their hands and faces turning slick and sticky.
The band played. Amidst glittering gold crowns of cardboard, Edith Piaf appeared in a little black dress; a waterfall cape of glittering red and blue fabric adorned her shoulders. Her beard glistened as she sang a version of Lorde’s “Royals,” bemoaning the fate of the peasants like her who would never reach the status of Marie Antoinette.
Other bearded victims arrived, including Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe. They had a grand time, and the Revolutionaries—peasants and bourgeoisie alike—didn’t care that Marie Antoinette, Edith Piaf, and Lorde never occupied the same era. They called for the storming of the prison, the freeing of the prisoners, and the defeat of the One Percent.
Tonya Harding appeared to smoke the masses into silence with her giant cigarette. She called upon the NSA—Nancykerrigan Sucks A lot—to rid her of the annoying Ninety-Nine Percent. Piaf fired back, bringing Joan of Arc and Napoleon to the fight against the likes of Marie Antoinette, Harding, and other disasters that 1994 wrought upon the public.
To continue the fight for freedom and break the chains of oppression, Benjamin Franklin joined with Liberty in tow, his (her) black skin glistening in the burning heat of the day as he (she) called for liberty and justice for all. His patriots brandished their muskets, threatening to storm the Eastern Bastille Penitentiary. From her perch next to Harding high above the street, Marie Antoinette swigged from her wine bottle and dared Piaf and the Revolutionaries to bring their best fighters.
Upon command, the fierce French baguette appeared, straight off the day-old rack. But pour Pain had no idea that her life would end in a barrage of Tastykakes, lobbed from the roof of the prison by Antoinette, Harding, and other aristocrats bedecked in pink beehive wigs. The Ninety-Nine Percent hunkered down, protecting themselves with words like “Too Long,” indicating just how long they have been oppressed. When all 3,000 Tastykakes had, at last, sailed through the air, the muskets harmlessly fired and broke through the unlocked fortress.
Out came Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor held hostage by their beliefs against the Hobby Lobby decision. New prisoners Harding and Antoinette stood before Piaf, Franklin, Joan of Arc, and Napolean as Piaf called for their heads. The crowd agreed, but the Justices, always seeking fair and equal treatment for all, quieted the Revolutionaries. “Capital punishment, even a little, is unjust.”
Piaf agreed and suggested that everyone get gay married instead. They did, even Antoinette and Harding. They all lived happily ever after, except for, as Piaf said, “ . . .the straight-laced capitalists, who hate gay marriage more than social justice.”
Eastern State Penitentiary’s Bastille Day Festival aims to be a wildly entertaining political satire, which allows people to laughingly say what they want and need in their communities. While the script highlights serious issues, the performance offers tongue-in-cheek humor, a nod to the fact that dialogue must remain open between sides.
Jarboe said, “It is meant to be powerful, empowering, but not prescriptive. One of my favorite lines from the script is, ‘Do you feel the pulsing? That’s social justice pumping through you!’”
The best way to enjoy the festival is to come early, go to one of the art museums, then dine from one of the special French-fare menus at the Fairmount restaurants. “Dress up. Have Champagne. Have more Champagne. Do Philly. Enjoy the city.”
Bastille Day Festival at Eastern State Penitentiary was Saturday, July 12, 2014. Tours of ESP are available daily, 10am-5pm; for a full schedule of ESP events visit www.easternstate.org.
The Bearded Ladies perform at the Wilma Centre for Performing Arts in Philadelphia. Popera runs until July 27, 2014. For tickets and information, visit www.beardedladiescabaret.com.
By Staff Writer: Jann Simmons Andiamo