The Revolutionists

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

The Revolutionists, an ambitious and promising new play by Lauren Gunderson, is getting a spiffy first full production courtesy of The Catholic University Department of Drama prior to its professional debut in February 2016 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The fact that this well-resourced university theater has proffered such quality talent to showcase such a provocative (if not-quite-there) script is worthy of serious attention. Plus there’s much vitality and vigor onstage to be enjoyed.

Gunderson’s play is brimming with good ideas, beginning with the intriguing cast of characters: Four women who lived at the time of the French Revolution but in history never met. (Gunderson evidently knows the history she riffs on. You can find some of her fascinating background research here.)

The play’s central figure is Olympe De Gouge, a playwright. In history Olympe was an early women’s-rights and abolitionist activist whose 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman predated by a year Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Gunderson cleverly has Olympe craft from within the very play we are watching, and Kimberlee Wolfson plays her with robust moxie that singlehandedly supercharges many a scene.

Olympe’s confidante  and playwriting critic is a free woman of color from the Caribbean named Marianne Angel Ogé. Marianne is an invention of Gunderson’s but is married to the historical personage Vincent Ogé, a free man of color who led a revolt against French colonialism. During the play Marianne learns that her husband has been killed, and Latia Stokes’s portrayal of the character, notably in the mournful and loving letters she writes him, is the most sympathetic and emotionally resonant in the play.

The character of the dethroned diva Marie Antoinette functions in The Revolutionists somewhat as a cartoon, all self-absorbed and imperious though her reign is over and her head’s about to roll. In history of course she was the opposite of a revolutionist. The running jokes about that in Gunderson’s fiction are choice, and Teresa Catherine’s silly-elitist portrayal of the fading royal, her pockets full of pretty ribbons, is great fun to watch.

The fourth character in the quartet is Charlotte Corday, who famously stabbed Marat to death in his bath. Charlotte enters imploring Olympe to write her some lines with which to give voice to her revolutionary zeal, and Ciaran Farley plays her throughout with an appealing earnestness.

Three male actors appear in the cast as black-garbed bad guys—goons and executioners. The program wryly calls them Fraternité, Liberté, and Égalité, and they are played wittily by Seth Rosenke, Joseph Huff, and Cengiz Orhonlu respectively.

Director Eleanor Holdridge has staged the play briskly and astutely with a commendable commitment to collaboration in the development of this new work. Gunderson is based in San Francisco, so during rehearsal, she, Holdridge, and the cast would Skype about tweaks to the script-in-progress. Given the verve in the performances, the energy in the staging, and the spunky text, these video chats had to have been lively indeed.

Scenic Designer Tom Donahue and Assistant Scenic Designer Magdalena Schutzler have set the play handsomely on the Hartke Theatre stage  with  stark upstage reveals when trials and executions take place. It’s historical fact, therefore no spoiler alert, that Olympe, Marie, and Charlotte all lose their heads—but they do so here quite artfully as illuminated by Lighting Designer John P. Woodey and accompanied by Sound Designer Roc Lee’s graphic effects. Costume Designer Aryna Petrashenko’s wardrobes are especially noteworthy; they manage to locate the characters in history yet make their personalities seem contemporary.

It is precisely that tension between then and now that Gunderson has playfully put to her purpose in The Revolutionists. The characters all make contemporary references and speak in current idioms, unaccented except when they speak French words. But for the fact that they keep talking about the high-stakes revolution going on out on the streets, they could easily have dropped in from a rad-girls’-world TV show as scripted by, say, Tina Fey or Lena Dunham.

This could all work splendidly but doesn’t just yet. There many points in the play when the writer seemed uncertain what to do next, whether to make funny or make a point, with the awkward result that what humor there was seemed erratic and arhythmic and what substance there was felt half-hearted and unconvincing. It was also often evident in the actors’ performances that they had to lurch from one bit to another without much text-based through line to be their guide. There was however a lovely ending, when the four join in song (a “be-the-change-you-want-to-see-in-the-world” pop tune), and it brings wonderfully inspiring closure to the show.

There are plenty of themes running through the play, but one comes through loud and clear: the notion that these four protofeminist activist women, inspired by the playwright Olympe, can rewrite their stories, can change their lives even as they change the society they live in such that the revolution they believe in will not replicate gender inequality. In contrast to the advice often given writers to “write what you know,” Olympe exhorts this sisterhood to “write what you want.” The promise and possibility in their ambition is moving and thrilling. And even though the guillotine is poised to dead-end their dreams in history, The Revolutionists does a nice job of urging such dreaming now.

Running Time: Two hours including one intermission.

The Revolutionists has four more performances remaining: tonight at 7:30 PM; Saturday, April 25, 2015 at 2 PM and 7:30 PM; and Sunday, April 26, 2015, at 2 PM at The Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 319-4000, purchase them at the box office, or online.

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