Review: Heads Roll in Feminist French Revolution Comedy THE REVOLUTIONISTS, at Artists Rep

By: May. 17, 2019
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Review: Heads Roll in Feminist French Revolution Comedy THE REVOLUTIONISTS, at Artists Rep

The French Revolution and comedy don't typically go together, but Lauren Gunderson upends many conventions in THE REVOLUTIONISTS, a fast-paced, feminist comedy set during France's 1793 Reign of Terror. The play, which is largely about the value of theatre and who gets to write our stories, is a funny, but also thoughtful, end to a season that focused on stories we don't often see on stage and also featured plenty of strong women.

THE REVOLUTIONISTS imagines a meeting between three real historical figures -- Olympe de Gouge, a playwright, novelist, and political pamphletist, who also wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen; Charlotte Cordray, a young woman who killed journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub; and Marie Antoinette -- and a composite one, Marianne Angelle, a free woman from the Caribbean who has dedicated her life to winning freedom for the slaves in French colonies.

Marianne, Charlotte, and Marie all come to Olympe with a need for her pen. Marianne wants pamphlets speaking out against slavery, Charlotte wants some last words she can say before she meets her inevitable fate at the guillotine, and Marie wants her story rewritten with a little more compassion. Olympe wants...well, it's not entirely clear. One minute she's unable to write anything because she wants to save her head, and the next she's storming Parliament with her declaration.

Olympe's inconsistency speaks to the central problem with THE REVOLUTIONISTS as a play -- it doesn't have a clear sense of purpose, so it swings wildly from joke-making (often at the expense of Les Mis) to feminist political manifesto to debates about the value of theatre. All of these pieces are individually interesting -- Gunderson's writing is smart and witty, and I'm always up for an impassioned discussion about the power of words -- but about halfway through, I found myself wondering what the play as a whole was about. To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure. Maybe it's just supposed to be funny?

Fortunately, this question didn't detract from my enjoyment of actually watching the play. Lava Alapai's brilliant direction moves the action along at a fast enough clip to (mostly) avoid its getting lost in the quagmire. And the cast is excellent. Jamie M. Rea is luminous as Olympe de Gouge, and, after three years in Ashland, Amy Newman makes a very welcome return to the Artists Rep stage as the vain, vapid, and occasionally profound Marie Antoinette. Joellen Sweeney gives a spunky performance as Charlotte Corday, and Ayanna Berkshire keeps the show grounded as the practical Marianne Angelle. Watching these four women play off each other is the best part.

Overall, I recommend THE REVOLUTIONISTS. It provides plenty of laughs as well as food for thought about the need for stories during politically turbulent times. There are also some very fun wigs (thanks to Diane Trapp).

THE REVOLUTIONISTS runs through May 26. More details and tickets here.

Photo credit: David Kinder


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