BWW Review: THE REVOLUTIONISTS at Unicorn Theatre
The Queen of France, an assassin, and a freed slave woman run into each other at an artist's loft in 1790s Paris. It sounds like the start of a joke about a priest, a minister, and a rabbi at a local bar, but the setup buries tons of hilarious non-sequiturs inside the dialog and the very much more serious subject of female subjugation through the centuries. Lauren Gunderson's fascinating "The Revolutionists" opened June 8th for a Kansas City premiere at the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City's midtown area.
To characterize "The Revolutionists" as an absurdist metaphor does not give it enough credit. There are four female characters. Three of the four are known to history. The fourth is a composite who should have existed even if she did not in the flesh. All four actresses charged with the portrayals do an exceptional job. It ain't easy being funny in the literal shadow of Madame Guillotine.
Our four characters come together in the loft of playwright Olympe DeGauges here brought to life by the impressive Vanessa Severo.
Madame DeGauges suffers from a serious case of writer's block. She is approached by the imagined Marianne Angelle (Chioma Anyanwu), a revolutionary from the French West Indies, to assist her with creating political tracts decrying slavery (a la Thomas Paine) while the French Revolution rages in the streets outside the loft. She is dressed in period dress, a revolutionary sash, and combat boots. Marianne turns out to be the most earnest and sympathetic of our four ladies and the only survivor.
Olympe is determined to write a commercial comedy. Marianne is much more committed to the political pamphlet. The discussion ping pongs back and forth with theatrical inside one-liners including oft repeated references to romcoms and musicals.
They are interrupted twice more.
Prospective assassin, the earnest Charlotte Corday (Elise Poehling), bursts into the room. A monarchist, Charlotte has determined to murder journalist Jean-Paul Marat for condemning various individuals to death after disagreeing with his political views. Charlotte realizes that her act of defiance will cost her and she has arrived searching for an exit speech before her bloody act and ultimate demise.
Last to join the klatch is deposed Queen Marie Antoinette (Amy Elizabeth Attaway). Resplendent in Blue Beehive wig, formal gown, and her best tennis shoes, Marie is searching for a whole new play where her ending is more positively altered. Imagine ZsaZsa Gabor with just a touch of Edith Bunker.
It should be said that these four individuals never actually met. It is all a comic setup for a worthy screed on women's rights that are still being fought for in 2019. Think of it like MASH -- fun, but also polemic in opposition to the Viet Nam experience.
Charlotte Corday did murder Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub where he soaked for a skin condition. She did lose her head. It turns out that Jean-Paul may not have been such a nice guy. He died while taking notes about prospective beheadees. It is interesting to note that his eulogy was (in fact) delivered by the Marquis de Sade.
Marie followed her husband, King Louis, to the Guillotine sans the big wig. The cake quote we all attribute to her was not accurate and she jokes about it the course of the play.
Madame DeGauges was a playwright of the time and the illegitimate daughter of French nobility. Her political work and anti-slavery attitudes came to notice after their wide performance on the stage at the famous Comedie-Francaise. She eventually ran afoul of the Revolution and also lost her head in the Reign of Terror.
Lauren Gunderson, the actual playwright, is still in her thirties. She has twenty produced titles to her catalog and is among the most performed modern American playwrights. Ms. Gunderson is gifted with the ability to tell an inside baseball joke well and still get across her point. There is even a reference to "Les Miz," the barricade, and a joke song lyric from the Act I finale. Victor Hugo's "Les Miz" is set some forty years later during a later French upheaval.
"The Revolutionists" at the Unicorn has a super cast and is more than worth your time. Nothing is tougher or more dangerous for actors than comedy with a serious point to make. These folks and their director, Missy Koontz, make this show cook.
"The Revolutionists" runs through June 30. Tickets can be purchased at www.unicorntheatre.org or by telephone at 816-531-7529.
Photos courtesy of Unicorn Theatre and Cynthia Levin.