By Daniel Skora
The winds of revolt blew over France for a decade (1789–1799), bringing with them social and political upheaval and justice administered by the blade of a guillotine. During that time, the monarchy fell. The clergy lost much of their influence. And liberté, fraternité, and égalité became the cry of the land.
Theatre Nova is presenting “The Revolutionists”, playwright Lauren Gunderson’s comedy (mostly) about four women whose lives have become intertwined with the events of the day. Three of the women were, in fact, real people. Marie Antoinette (Melissa Beckwith), was Queen to Louis XVI, France’s King when the revolution began. Charlotte Corday (Sara Rose) assassinated the journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat. Olympe de Gouges (Diane Hill) was a feminist playwright and political activist who here does double duty as surrogate for Ms. Gunderson. Marianne Angelle (K Edmonds), the lone composite character, is a black woman attempting to curry support for the slave uprising happening in the French colony of Saint-Dominique.
Through the magic of theatre, the four, who never met in real life, find themselves together in the Paris study of Olympe. From there, “The Revolutionists” proceeds as a nicely woven story of four women dedicated, in one way or another, to the cause of revolution.
Olympe is having trouble attempting to write a play that will tell how women are making a contribution to the revolution and how its once noble intentions have degenerated into an unruly affair of mayhem and murder. Rose wishes to extinguish the life of Marat, who has become the public voice of those in favor of the executions. Antoinette would like nothing more than to have her queenship restored and governing matters returned to the way they were before. And Angelle wants the liberating promises of the revolution to find their way back to her homeland.
But the history in Gunderson’s play is painted with broad brushstrokes, is in fact, eclipsed by the fact that these women have overcome the prevailing limitations of their gender and are going to make a difference in their world. How does something so serious become a comedy, you may wonder? Gunderson’s script is filled with 18th century anomalies which are responsible for much of the play’s hilarity. It’s almost as if each of the women has the ability to sense what’s going to happen some two hundred years into the future. For example, when Olympe is toying with several plotlines for her play, one of the women asks the question “Who would ever want to go and see a play about French revolutionists barricading themselves in the street?”
It’s not possible to escape the fact that Gunderson has put much of herself into the character of Olympe. At one time, Olympe is debating whether “The Revolutionists” might be a good title for her play. It’s not. This is too smart a play to be saddled with the suggestion of fighting and war in its title. The play is ambitious, cerebral, hilarious and serious, boisterous, intriguing, entertaining, and, ultimately, extremely satisfying- But Gunderson herself may have been in awe at all that her play encompasses because like Olympe, she threw up her hands in resignation to “The Revolutionists” title.
Theatre fans will love the little snippets of theatre talk and playwriting to which the play makes frequent references. Gunderson, incidentally, was recently named by American Theatre as the second most produced playwright of the 2016/17 season (August Wilson was first). Her play “I and You” was previously produced by Theatre Nova as part of their launch season.
Theatre Nova’s fine production begins with its exceptional cast. Hill, Edmonds, Rose and Beckwith are great alone, even better together. Director David Wolber keeps his cast moving, even during the parts where plot takes a backseat to dialogue. The set (along with costume design and props by Forrest Hejkal) are kept to a minimum. Rolling flames emblazoned on the stage’s backdrop give an indication of the turmoil then plaguing Paris. For those who like to follow the fortunes of the Yellow Barn’s permanently situated stage-left pole, its only function for this show is serving as a bar of the jail cell where one of the four women awaits her execution. Lighting design is by Daniel C. Walker, sound by Carla Milarch. Stage manager for the production is Michelle Resnick.
In spite of its subject matter, “The Revolutionists” is a very funny and cleverly written play that deserves to be seen. The show runs through September 17th. Tickets are available by calling the theatre’s box office at 734.635-8450. Contact A2TheatreNOVA@gmail.com or go online at www.TheatreNova.org for more information. Theatre Nova is located at 410 W. Huron Street, a stone’s throw off the road in downtown Ann Arbor.