BWW Review: THE REVOLUTIONISTS: Make Art, Not War
Written by Lauren Gunderson, Directed by Courtney O'Connor; Scenic Design, Abby Shenker; Costume & Properties Design, Elizabeth Rocha; Lighting Design, Taylor Hansen; Sound Design, Elizabeth Cahill; Production Stage Manager, Maura Neff; Assistant Stage Manager, Sara Hutchins; Assistant Director, Tonasia Jones
CAST: Lee Mikeska Gardner, Eliza Rose Fichter, Celeste Oliva, Alexandria King
Performances through November 12 by The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-576-9278 x1 or www.centralsquaretheater.org
Dateline: Paris, France, 1793: Hold onto your heads! Generally speaking, not a good time to be a woman, especially one with an outspoken nature. Playwright Olympe de Gouges had the temerity to address the National Assembly and read her "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen," and refer to the gathered body as "ambitious men." They weren't too keen on the idea of gender egalité, but it was the latter insult that she flung at them which resulted in her one-way trip to the scaffold. Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and all the rest of us nasty women should breathe a sigh of relief that the guillotine has long-since been retired, but some men may still lust in their hearts for the good old days of The Reign of Terror.
The Nora Theatre Company presents Lauren Gunderson's The Revolutionists, a play which loudly and proudly shows the contribution of four "badass" women to the story of the French Revolution. Historically, revolution tends to be about white men, so Gunderson also introduces a composite character, a free woman of color from a Caribbean island, who is a spy fighting for the abolition of slavery in her homeland. Joining the outspoken activist and feminist de Gouges (Lee Mikeska Gardner) and Marianne Angelle (Alexandria King) in the battle are Charlotte Corday (Eliza Rose Fichter), the assassin of journalist/politician Jean-Paul Marat, and the former Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (Celeste Oliva).
The award-winning Gunderson, the most produced playwright in America in 2017, developed the ambitious The Revolutionists at The Bay Area Playwrights Festival in 2015 and premiered it in 2016 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. For those with scant knowledge of French history and unfamiliar with the real-life women who populate the play, the script may feel dense and overflowing with historical references, but the strong writing and character development ease the understanding, and The Revolutionists is, believe it or not, primarily a comedy. Well, at least it starts out as a comedy, mirroring the fictional play that de Gouges is working on, until it necessarily becomes a drama as one after another of the women loses her head.
Director Courtney O'Connor stages the play in the center of the theater with stadium seating on all four sides of a slightly raised platform. For me, it is a double-edged sword to arrange the audience thusly because, on the plus side, it helps to create connection and community among the viewers as we watch each other's reactions, but the downside is that the actors are frequently facing the other way, sometimes making it difficult to hear them or see their expressions. That's a downer when the cast features a quartet of very expressive actors, but fortunately O'Connor's blocking allows for lots of moving about all corners of the stage.
Abby Shenker's scenic design is minimalistic, but there are numerous types of chandeliers hanging above the stage and one very ominous looking block of wood with some sharp blades descending from it to stand in for the guillotine. The lighting design by Taylor Hansen helps to suggest the moments before beheading, as well as setting a variety of moods throughout the play. We hear the murmuring of the angry mob and approaching gendarmes thanks to sound designer Elizabeth Cahill. Period costumes and properties are designed by Elizabeth Rocha, and the voluminous gown and towering wig worn by Oliva are almost worth the price of admission.
The Revolutionists tackles a litany of heavy themes ranging from feminism, to the importance of the arts in a time of crisis, to finding creative and effective ways to change the world, and fighting for the right to have control over one's own life. The story is set in 1793, but these themes echo too loudly in 2017, reminding us that women must persist to resist, to claim their due. When defending her activism, de Gouges says, "If being a traitor is loving my country enough to shame it for being less than its best self, then I am one, yes I am, and God knows I don't do anything less than aggressive theatre." Two centuries later, Lauren Gunderson is taking her place in that line.
Photo credit: A.R. Sinclair Photography (Lee Mikeska Gardner, Celeste Oliva)