Lauren Gunderson's The Revolutionists, premiered locally at Theatre Horizon, is the right play for right now. A smart, history-based, serious comedy, it features four rebellious women in chaotic political times: 1793 France and today’s United States.
Gunderson was 2017's most produced playwright in America (after Shakespeare) and has won many awards. But before this production, Philadelphia had only seen last season's terrific I and You at People's Light & Theatre Company.
The Revolutionists makes a great addition to Horizon's "#WomenWhoDare” season, a showcase for four of the area's most dynamic actresses, and a strong contribution to the continuing discussions about respecting women.
A revolutionary good time
Three of Gunderson's characters are historical figures, and the fourth is a composite drawn from historical events. Brilliantly manic, Charlotte Northeast plays Olympe de Gouges, an activist trying to write a play responding to 1793's Reign of Terror, symbolized by the brand-new guillotine.
"The play can't be about terror and death," she realizes, but about "grace and power in the face of it." She's joined by Marianne (Jaylene Clark Owens), a woman from the Caribbean seeking a declaration to free France’s sugar-producing slaves.
Charlotte Corday (Claire Inie-Richards), the famous assassin of Jean-Paul Marat, bursts in seeking a writer to pen her dying words. "My actions will be talked about for centuries," she insists, "and I don't want to sound like a dingbat. I need something that will sink into their memories for all time, something with a lot of 'fuck you' in it."
As realized by Jessica Bedford, Olympe's last visitor, Marie Antoinette, is a delightful screwball creation. She speaks in third person: "Marie enters! Is she late? Or lost? What were they talking about? Was it her? It's always her. Or is she being her again? It's a confusing time."
If she were alive today, a smartphone would always be in her hands. She's come to Olympe for a life rewrite. "If it's not a romantic comedy," the ex-queen points out, "nobody will come."
While all four have men in their lives, The Revolutionists centers women challenging, and changing, society. While Olympe's self-awareness scores quick laughs — clever stuff about watching a play about her writing a play — Gunderson's deeper themes shine through. "If they have the right to take my life," says Olympe, "then I have the right to speak my mind."
The women’s ferocious determination brings real consequences and darker tones in Act II, which Kathryn MacMillan's production expertly navigates. "It's the Reign of Terror," Marianne points out, "not the reign of agree and disagree." Set designer Brian Dudkiewicz's shiny trapezoidal office, both elegant and Spartan with few right angles, proves perfect for this play. Lily Fossner's lighting moderates the set's reflective surfaces, also illuminating the aisles when necessary.
With witty modern touches, Janus Stefanowicz's costumes suggest the period. Olympe eschews a woman's long dresses for practical male pants and boots; Marie Antoinette is gowned in pink-doll perfection and a tall platinum wig; Charlotte dons a sensible dress with a steak knife strapped to her thigh; Marianne wears a sash saying "Revolution for all." Their clothes feel modern because they're not confined by what they wear.
Gunderson's masterful script builds verbal anachronisms, meta-jokes, playful banter, and true historical events into a stirring finale as each woman faces her inevitable fate. "A story is what lives," Olympe realizes, and The Revolutionists proves it. Their struggles in 1793 reflect ours in 2018, as our culture finally begins to take women's stories seriously.