By Joe Gfaller
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. It’s the refrain that ends Hamilton. Even though the revolution is different, the sentiment carries beautifully into Paris in 1793 in Lauren Gunderson’s sparkling tragi-comedy The Revolutionists.
The play, presented by Insight Theatre Company, is at the Marcelle Theater through July 14.
Four bold, gutsy women of the French revolution meet in an imagined sequence of events in The Revolutionists. Three are real figures: Charlotte Corday (the assassin of Jean-Paul Marat), Olympe de Gouges (a feminist playwright), and Marie Antoinette (the deposed queen of France). One, Marianne Anglle, is a constructed amalgam of several free women of color who fought to end slavery in the French Caribbean.
That all four could ever have met – let alone built the relationships of trust, sympathy, and friendship constructed in the play – is impossible. The play acknowledges this directly before it ends. However, once you willingly suspend that disbelief and accept you are watching “a revolutionary dream fugue, as the play calls itself, you are quickly in for a treat.
Lauren Gunderson’s play is filled with a modern wit that captures the spirit of these women without ever trying to recreate the language of the period. “Chutzpah,” “high five,” and “work life balance” were probably never spoken in 18th century France – let alone some of the saltier 21st century language that these characters invoke. However, by pulling these women out of stilted period turns of phrase, the play makes them feel as vital and contemporary to audiences today as they would have felt to the people of France in their own day.
Where the play is at its best, The Revolutionists threads the playful and the profound. That is no better personified than in Laurie McConnell’s portrayal of Marie Antionette, who becomes at turns endearing and loveable, batty and self-absorbed. She can bring the house down by announcing “Gasp!” and then commenting “Sometimes I say it instead of doing it.” But, despite all the caricature, in the end, she finds her nobility in her humanity – knowing that, like most of our heroines, she is to face the guillotine and her own death. Her promise to deliver a message to the husband of another woman in the afterlife becomes one of the play’s most touching moments.
As Charlotte Corday, Samantha Auch gives the most emotionally compelling performance in the production. She first bursts into de Gouges’ parlor in search of a writer who can help her write her inevitable last words at the guillotine. Full of self-righteous conviction, she can both channel the innocence to believably call her plan to murder Marat “stabby stab stab” and the icy certainty to comment on the sexual assault she eventually receives in prison to confirm if she “is a virgin.” The beautiful clarion voice with which she delivers the first of a few unexpected lines of music upon her death filled the theater with hope in the play’s first great moment of despair.
Kimmie Kidd gives a solid portrayal of Marianne Angelle as a dignified voice of reason, attempting to motivate her friend de Gouges to harness her talents for the cause of abolition and women’s equality. In the one scene of substantial dramatic stakes for these two, she and de Gouges abandon their early witty banter and intellectual arguments for a fight that is grounded in what feels to be true betrayal. As one who has lived the fight, Angelle’s wounds are deep. “You can’t write it if you’re not in it,” Angelle bristles at de Gouges, ultimately leaving the playwright on the floor, clutching the very pages she was prepared to burn in order to save her own skin.
It is Olympe de Gouges’ journey that theoretically serves as the arc of the play. Sadly, there are times in which the construct – of her as writer that the other three women come to – feels like the engine of a plot that is less about her and more about the others. In the spirit of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, it’s as if we find ourselves at a prolonged dinner party full of entertaining incident and careful, thoughtful character studies. But the host herself feels hollow. We never learn how she and Angelle have come to be as close as we’re told they are, so when their relationship frays, it’s not one that we have found a way to invest in deeply. Their struggle matters to them more than it matters to us.
In Jenni Ryan’s portrayal of de Gouges, some of the character’s artifice – constantly hiding behind arguments about the aesthetic value of theater and art – seem to bury the heart of this woman, who often can come across as a less-than-capable dilletante. (The real de Gouges seems to have been anything but.) Her struggle seems to be an intellectual one for three-quarters of the play – and when it finally becomes a real one, it seems to surprise the character as much as it does the audience.
Ultimately, in de Gouges’ final moments, Ryan transforms her into someone who is deeply sympathetic. One only wishes that transformation could have happened earlier in the evening.
Staging The Revolutionists in the round, Trish Brown does an elegant job of consistently using the space well and maintaining a level of energy and momentum that can make a somewhat heady play that relies more on great dialogue than plot continue to feel fresh, fun, and visceral. The simple impact of red flower petals as blood in the moment when Corday kills Marat was one of many beautiful grace notes she successfully incorporated into the staging.
The limited set design — a few pieces of furniture — by Leah McFall was complemented quite effectively by the periodic soundscapes of sound designers Trish Brown and Bob Schmit, and the strong lighting from designer Morgan Brennan. Julian King’s costume design also gave each of the four women signature looks for the entire evening. With a larger budget, one imagines that an occasional costume change would have given us a chance to see more of variety.
I could have lived without the periodic meta-theatrical comparisons to Les Miserables that peppered the script — particularly since the student revolution in that musical was an entirely different revolution than the one playing out in Paris in the 1790s.
But, that aside, the wit and humor of the piece was frequently deeply satisfying and consistently surprising. Bringing back to life these four women in such a novel and engaging setting makes the production well worth a visit.
It’s no wonder that playwright Lauren Gunderson was recently among the most-produced playwrights in America and that her plays have so frequently graced St. Louis stages. She is a rare talent that, in this play, marries heart, humor, and history in a way that will make any audience member clamor to cry “Vive la revolution!”
Insight Theatre Company presents “The Revolutionists’ June 27 – July 14 at the Marcelle Theatre in the Grand Arts District, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com or call 314-556-1293.