Pictured (l-r): Stephanie Sullivan and Laura Sturm. Photo by Anna Gelman.
By Sheri Flanders
What do you get when you set a drawing room meta-comedy against the backdrop of the French Revolution? You get THE REVOLUTIONISTS!
Writer Lauren Gunderson resurrects the spirit and story of Olympe De Gouges, a French playwright and feminist activist, struggling with the relevance (or lack thereof) of her words in the face of bloody societal uprising. Through this metaphor for the social media age, Gouges examines a variety of potential reactions or inactions to revolution through her own perspective, as well as the lens of three historic fellow women: noted french assassin Charlotte Corday, esteemed Caribbean revolutionary Marianne Angelle, and Marie Antoinette (you know who she is).
The play begins like a shot from a cannon; first, heavy and ominous, then exploding with breakneck speed. Gunderson sets up a terrifyingly ambitious literary game for herself in the first act as the characters deftly weave complex, witty banter which they vow will be “Comical and quite profound!” And it certainly is comical; the first act earns a long run of both silly and sophisticated self-referential legitimate belly laughs that would make many a comedian envious.
The problem with a reliance on self-referential humor is that it continues to worm it’s way ever inward, folding, turning and twisting into its own navel lint. By the second act, all of the best material has been burned and we are left with dregs of repeated jokes that devolve further and further into irrelevance, providing a foundation of sand for the proposed profundity.
In act two, Gunderson attempts to deliver on the “profound” part of the promise, delving deep into Corday’s assassination plot and Antoinette’s attempt to evade the guillotine. Sarah Copeland plays a fiery and deliciously angry Corday. Her unwavering confidence in the righteousness of the murder she vows to commit produces a female character rarely depicted onstage.. Corday is the most interesting character by far, and her story creates a compelling backbone for an argument for action over passivity.
Arguing for the pleasures of now, Laura Sturm plays a delightfully insipid and spoiled Marie Antoinette, wrapped up in frippery and bows and a majestic wig that bounces deliriously on her head like a marshmallow confection. Costume designers Jeremy W. Floyd and Morgan Saaf-White play a wonderful role in adding visual continuity to each of these characters. Though she provides most of the comic relief through the end of the play, Marie Antoinette is unfortunately so married to frivolity and punchlines that the play’s final plea for the audience to see her as human rings false.
Marianne Angelle grounds this piece as the measured and reasoned Taylor Raye, a spy a world away from her family. Her wry and sage observations provide a sounding board for Stephanie Sullivan’s entertainingly silly depiction of Olympe De Gouges, hand-wringing and whining in the face of danger. Unfortunately, as the characters attempt to heed the call for “liberté, égalité, fraternité” for all women, the playwright falls just short of égalité for Taylor Raye, who, as the only black woman in the cast, is relegated to cliché in the role of “noble, supportive best friend,” soberly lecturing the audience on the perils of slavery.
In act two, Gunderson completely gives up on providing Raye with jokes and resorts to backstory plot summary and “chin up” lines devoid of agency like “Come on, she needs us!” and “You can’t give up now!,” performing the never-ending emotional labor of providing a stoic backbone and moral compass to spoiled white women. True égalité would mean that stories of the black experience could also be filtered through humor, as well as respect.
This is a minor quibble compared to the play’s inert and tangled second and third acts, which could stand to be trimmed by 45 minutes. A war between style and substance where style is the clear winner, THE REVOLUTIONISTS is an argument for the importance and value of the elite arts as a tool for social advancement; a drunken desperate screed for its own importance. In this unorganized junk drawer of historic references, modern quips, theatrical inside baseball and feminism 101, honest, thoughtful moments of anger, passion and compassion—that wring real tears and pathos from the four extraordinarily capable actors in the third act—sadly float untethered, as if part of a separate, more grounded play.
After what seems like the third false ending, and a few clunky attempts to circle back and stick the landing on a solemn moment, the play finally, creakily pulls into the garage, regains it’s mirthful tone and finishes exactly where it started. Perhaps the takeaway is a nihilistic one; there isn’t anything new to be said under the sun, so let us cliché away and have our cake and eat it too. In the present, a play can call itself experimental and aggressive while being predictable and tame.
Too clever for its own good, THE REVOLUTIONISTS stops short of its repeated promise of being “unexpectedly profound.” To truly be revolutionary, one must have something new to say or a new way to say it. As the play twists in the wind of its words, the audience is left waiting for a Wonder Woman insight that never arrives.
Perhaps wanting revolutionary change is wanting too much. Perhaps we should find peace in mediocrity; solace in small gains. Perhaps documenting and witnessing and retelling the past is easier than changing our present or hoping for a better future. Perhaps in the current climate, the deed of telling the unsung stories of four women from history who are better than ourselves is revolution enough.
THE REVOLUTIONISTS runs through July 8th. For more information visit organictheater.org.