In general, there is not much to celebrate about the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror claimed innocent lives, and the massacre that spread from Paris to the countryside is a dark mark on France’s embrace of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But playwright Lauren Gunderson manages to find a bright spot in the women of “The Revolutionists.” When a playwright, a murderess, a queen, and a civil rights activist come together, sparks fly, and Organic Theater’s production mostly ignites those fires.
Olympe de Gouges (Stephanie Sullivan), a real-life historical playwright and feminist figure, is suffering from writer’s block because she is troubled by dreams of the guillotine. Her friend Marianne Angelle (Taylor Raye), a spy and composite figure of several Caribbean freedom fighters, encourages her to write about her convictions, but before Olympe starts a play about her friend’s espionage intrigues, Charlotte Corday (Sara Copeland), the real-life assassin of Jean-Paul Marat, bursts in the room demanding some infamous final words. Matters become even more complicated when Marie Antoinette (Laura Sturm) enters the room, asking for Olympe to improve her reputation with a witty farce in the style of the national theatre.
Gunderson is cleverly playing with comedy conventions from pre-Revolution times, including the action turning on French scenes — a new character entering, and posing a problem for the protagonist. But she also pulls from de Gouges’ tradition, in that she writes the play as if the characters are aware they’re performing in one. Olympe’s most subversive work involved inserting herself into a debate over forms of government with Marie Antoinette, and while Gunderson lands jokes about meta-theatre and theatrical navel-gazing, she is nowhere near creating anything as subversive herself. This is the first play I have seen of hers, and it helped me understand why she is the most produced playwright on our American stages right now. She is a very funny writer, allowing contemporary colloquialisms and jabs at artistic culture to leak into “The Revolutionists.” She clearly examines issues that concern her: who gets to speak in feminist circles, how one must rise to the occasion during tyrannical times, how hard it can be to capture one’s feelings on the page. But something about this meta-experiment feels hollow, as I think on it now. She writes safely, rather than courageously — the very thing Olympe is accused of in the play! Gunderson is a great humanist, but the danger these women collectively face never comes alive in her dialogue, and it needs to, in order for the history to feel vital to us. We end up with a smart, witty play that does not quite live up to the images of the guillotine it shows us.
Director Bryan Wakefield stages the play simply, with the women circling each other, as their debates about violent action and the proper forms of protest heat up. But he has several missed opportunities to toy with the unreality of the script, so that the audience understands how this meta-exploration will come to mean more by play’s end. Sullivan does excellent work as de Gouges, flitting easily from a writer’s neurotic self-obsession to a woman’s vulnerable need to express terror. Sturm is a hoot as Antoinette, making the queen’s privilege both careless and understandable at the same time. Raye does solid work as Angelle, though she mostly excels in her angry discussions with Sullivan. And while Copeland struggles with the highs and lows of Corday’s roller coaster thought process, she creates a full sense of how her character moves in the world.
Terrance McClellan’s scenic design features doorways that turn into guillotines, and M. Anthony Reimer’s angry mob sound design fills the space with ominous thoughts. Costume designers Jeremy M. Floyd and Morgan Saaf-White highlight both excess and simplicity in their dresses, depending on the character.
Though “The Revolutionists” did not explicitly called me to action, I at least have a deeper appreciation of hidden figures within France’s turning. Gunderson may not ask the audience to rise from their seats in protest, but she does ask that we look at her characters with humor, empathy, and understanding. And maybe right now, that is a revolutionary act.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Women find and lose their purpose during the French Revolution.
DIE RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”
Show: “The Revolutionists”
Company: Organic Theater Company
Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave)