The characters in Lauren Gunderson’s 2016 play The Revolutionists are all fascinating, powerful women from the history of the French Revolution: playwright Olympe de Gouges (Daina Michelle Griffith), an early feminist who authored the “Declaration of the Rights of Women,” Charlotte Corday (Moira Quigley), the Girondiste who murdered the radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub; Marie Antoinette (Drew Leigh Williams), the recently deposed Queen of France; and “La Marianne” – not really a historical figure, but a symbol of the revolution, here fleshed out as the fictional Marianne Angelle, a Caribbean freedom fighter (Shamika Cotton). These four figures would likely never have come together in history (they shared neither political orientation nor class/social status), but in Gunderson’s imagining they have something in common – they are all women whose stories have been wrested from them by history, and who, each in their own right, exhibited a heroism overlooked or underrecognized by the historical record.
It’s up to Olympe de Gouges to write them back into history, or at least that seems to be the driving force behind the play’s action. De Gouges is trying to write a play – perhaps, even, the play we are watching – but both the form and content elude her, until Marianne, Charlotte, and Marie invade her space and demand her help, because “everyone needs a writer for some purpose.” The interactions between the four women provide opportunity for illumination into what they have in common (motherhood, children, a proto-feminist consciousness, a desire to have their perspective heard and recognized) and also into the ways their legacies have been erased or distorted.
Dear Reader, I wanted to like this play and production much more than I did. I’m always up for a good revisionist view of history – especially a feminist one! – and any production that prominently features not only an all-female creative team, but a racially diverse one at that, already has me in its palm. But alas, I found myself unable to board its train, primarily because the play seems unable to decide, from among the many things it touches upon, what it really wants to be about. The closest I could come to pinpointing an “aboutness” to this play was that it seeks to spin out the ways in which the social and political differences between these four figures ought to have been overshadowed by their shared oppression as women – that their sororité could or should have eclipsed all other divisions between them. But otherwise we don’t get much revision of history here, at least not in any detailed or rich sense. Instead, much of the play’s energy is devoted to self-referential reflections on the job of the playwright to write these women back into history, which makes for a kind of clever joke the first few times we hear it, but soon grows tiresome and overdone. By the end of the play, the idea that it’s up to de Gouges to “write their story” has been repeated so many times that you may find yourself, as I did, mentally humming that tune from Hamilton.
Overall, the production – which was directed by Jade King Carroll – lacks a clear shape and forward momentum and feels overly effortful where it should be light and bouncy. The first act takes a long time to get its gears in motion, and then once the train is on the tracks it’s not very clear where we are headed. Nonetheless, Gunderson deploys an anachronistically modern language in the dialogue that often provides a nice frisson of humor – there are some good laughs along the way. Among the cast, Williams in particular, as Marie Antoinette, seems to capture the tone and spirit of Gunderson’s comedy; she also manages to finesse the play’s difficult transition to the dark part of history (in which the three “real” historical figures all end up on the scaffold with “Madame Guillotine”). And visually, the production is compelling: backgrounded by Anne Mundell’s fleur de lys and chandelier-strewn set, the four ladies look gorgeous in costume designer Susan Tsu’s 18th-century inspired clothes and wigs, and sound designer Fan Zhang and lighting designer Nicole Pearce have collaborated to find a theatrically effective solution for depicting the play’s fifth character, “Madame Guillotine.”