Story: Paris has become a dangerous place in 1793, just a few years after the French Revolution of 1789 and at the center of the infamous Reign of Terror of 1793-94, with public executions by guillotine de rigueur.
France has become especially suffocating for women, as feminist writer Olympe de Gouges observes that the national motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité lacks sororité, “sisterhood,” with women still relegated to second-class citizenship. So Olympe is more than interested when her friend, revolutionary spy Marianne Angelle, arrives in Paris urging Olympe to join Marianne’s cause to free the slaves in the Caribbean province of French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).
Olympe also is visited by young Charlotte Corday, who is searching for her “final line” before she assassinates Jean-Paul Marat, politician and journalist aligned with the bloodthirsty Jacobins, who thrived on torture. When deposed and addlebrained Queen Marie Antoinette pops by unexpectedly, the quartet of women commiserate with one another even as their frustrations mount.
Marianne sorely misses her husband, a fellow revolutionary who, like his wife, has written an “ultimate” letter to be delivered to her only upon his death. The virginal Charlotte is driven by her allegiance to the moderate Girondins to slay Marat and “kill one man to save 100,000.” Marie Antoinette realizes that despite her shallowness she still has enough dignity to protect her children and strike back at outrageous accusations of incest.
As for Olympe, she can’t decide between writing political pamphlets or penning a play for the feminist cause – and maybe she’ll do both. Time, however, is rapidly running out on the quartet, and the guillotine’s bloody blade seems perilously close to all four, especially for those issued an appointment before the ominous Tribunal, which oversees trials and executions. Vive la révolution, indeed.
Highlights: Insight Theatre Company offers the metro area a Bastille Day bonbon with its engaging version of prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson’s paean to several outspoken, accomplished women in the days of the French Revolution.
Other Info: Like Gunderson’s earlier effort, Silent Sky, The Revolutionists dramatizes women forgotten or maligned by history. Although not as consistently engaging as Silent Sky (the story of pioneer astronomer Henrietta Swan Levitt), The Revolutionists showcases Gunderson’s knack for clever writing, helping to make it an interesting exercise.
The most-produced playwright in America since 2016, Gunderson calls The Revolutionists “A Comedy, A Quartet, A Revolutionary Dream Fugue, A True Story,” with three out of four of those accurate That description (on the cover of the play’s booklet) lacks total authenticity in that “Marianne” is fictional, a composite of the symbol of French liberty (Marianne) and real-life blacks who fought to liberate Saint-Domingue from colonial France.
Marianne, in fact, sports a sash proclaiming “Revolution for all” with her Caribbean-style costume, courtesy of designer Julian King, whose concept goes all out with the garish flamboyance of the deposed queen, including her bizarre wig and its even stranger accouterments. Leah McFall’s simple but effective set design involves period furniture moved on and off the stage depending on the scene.
Morgan Brennan’s lighting accentuates the darker moments in the piece, which ranges from broad comedy to touching drama, bolstered by Trish Brown’s and Bob Schmit’s sound design.
Gunderson’s script can be witty and pointed, but it also can meander for maddening stretches, as in the three different moments when Act I could logically conclude before it staggers to a halt. Perhaps juggling the causes and personalities of four strong but disparate characters proved too unwieldy.
Nonetheless, Brown, as director, draws marvelous performances from her four players, who work well off one another. Jenni Ryan portrays Olympe as frazzled but determined to not “write what you know, (but) write what you want.” Olympe desires equality for women, and she’s willing to fight with her pen to achieve that, as Ryan convincingly conveys.
Kimmie Kidd-Booker brings Marianne to feminist life as the tough but compassionate Caribbean revolutionary, committed as much to freedom as she is to her soul mate husband. Samantha Auch delivers the goods as the youthful and fiercely idealistic Charlotte, who holds a place in history decidedly less favorable than her treatment by Gunderson.
Perhaps the biggest surprise involves Laurie McConnell’s portrayal of Marie Antoinette. Although the clichéd “Let them eat cake” too often stands for the queen’s indifference to the commoners’ plight, McConnell shows another side to her. Her Marie Antoinette, although admittedly dimwitted, also can reach out to her comrades in thought to share a lusty laugh or a moment of pathos.
Gunderson, a terrific playwright, ranks as one heck of a researcher as well, delving into the largely unknown lives of women who had a strong if submerged impact on history. (Marie Antoinette, for instance, didn’t die in 1789, as I myself had thought.) The Revolutionists, while resonating with current politics, also succeeds in opening our eyes to its “hi, story” of the past.
Company: Insight Theatre Company
Venue: The Marcelle, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive
Dates: July 12 to 14
Tickets: $20 to $40; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5