Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Revolutionists
The Adobe Theater
Review by Carla Cafolla

Lauren Jehle, Nicolette Wagner, Jennifer Benoit,
and Stacy Hasselbacher

Photo by Philip J. Shortell
If you can imagine a writer writing about a writer writing about four women, all of whom die during the French Revolution, you have the essence of Lauren Gunderson's play, The Revolutionists, now on stage at The Adobe Theater.

In this production directed by Georgia Athearn we meet a disparate female quartet, three of whom existed during the time of The French Revolution but who never met in real life, come together in the imagination of writer Olympe de Gouges. De Gouges, an abolitionist and a proponent of a national vote, fell afoul of Madame La Guillotine in 1793, the year same another character, Charlotte Corday, dispatched the radical leader Jean-Paul Marat and was herself dispatched four days later. Marie Antoinette, the last queen of the French royal family, whose execution ushered in the beginnings of the French Republic, met death with, according to history, a gentle and sincere apology to her executioner for inadvertently stepping on his foot, thus making 1793 a busy year indeed. The fourth personage, Marianne Angelle, is an allegorical figure and the author's perception of freed female slaves of the era.

When I first ventured into the world of reviewing, I was given some advice by a friend and mentor. Upon reading a late draft of a very early review I had written, he said, and I paraphrase, that writing for my own amusement, displaying my own undoubtedly brilliant wit, is not my job as a reviewer, and has no place in the final draft. This advice (I do listen, Dr. Hansen) has tempered the worst of my literary inclinations, and I, along with my writing, am the better for it. So, when I say the generous use of a sharp scalpel could only improve this script, please recognize the understatement therein. If Ms. Gunderson had received and applied advice similar to mine, this would be a different review.

The first act gives us such shallow, flighty, self-absorbed women, it seems unlikely they should ever be destined for historical fame, or even remembrance. The contemporary language works well, but it seems as if Gunderson is determined we see how clever she is, seemingly more intent on displaying her wit than creating a focal point for us. This self-indulgent dialog is annoying, and it's the only time I've ever wished the actors would forget their lines. Witnessing the overly long act bury itself, the cast struggles with a script which, if edited judiciously, could be genuinely funny. There are a couple of unexpected "zingers" which had the entire audience laughing, though the phallic references missed the mark. Why the author wishes this to be viewed as intermittently amusing also adds to the confusion of this non-linear play.

The second act is so different in tone and quality, it seems we are witnessing a different play, and almost makes up for Act I. Here the talent of the author who penned the truly wonderful "Book of Will" peeks through. The Revolutionists might be a worthy successor to Will had Gunderson decided upon this approach throughout. The change-up doesn't salvage the piece, but it does allow the actors to showcase their talent, and though there are more than a few occasions where the underlying nuances of the script are overlooked, misunderstood or ignored, the contrast seemed to engaged the opening night's audience who, like I, were wondering about the direction of the show.

Now we see why this play was written and why, even existing in the imagination, these women, and therefore other brave female pioneers, made and continue to make such a difference. Every character has a distinct agenda, focusing mainly on their own needs, though very supportive of each other in between long bouts of self-interest. The annoying comicality is somewhat tempered and the characters begin earning our understanding and sympathy. De Gouges, played by Jennifer Benoit, a popular local actress with many New Mexico theatrical credits to her name, transitions into a deeper, less hysterical character, even as the reality of her now limited future becomes clear. Benoit does a good job with her somewhat bi-polar position and is the only woman who faces her execution with the horror I imagine all of us would feel.

The biggest transformation, and one of my favorite characters, is Stacy Hasselbacher's Marie Antoinette, who, as Hasselbacher settles into her debut role here in Albuquerque, becomes a truly sympathetic character–her often hilarious selfishness fades as the accident of her position becomes clear, and her needless, dignified death is seen as the murder it is.

Charlotte Corday presents us with an opposing viewpoint–a pre-meditated murderer who somehow symbolizes how a true revolutionist willing to die for her cause can ultimately become a victim. Corday, played naturally, perceptively, and with excellent comedic timing by Lauren Jehle, whom I saw some months ago playing Sandy in Grease, will break your heart with her youthful passion and singular purpose in this, her Adobe Theater debut.

The origins of how the name Marianne came to symbolize "goddess of liberty" date back to 1775 when artist Jean-Michel Moreau painted her as a young woman dressed in Roman-style clothing. After the revolution, when France changed from a monarchy to a republic, a modified version of the young woman, one we recognize from Eugène Delacroix's famous painting "La liberté guidant le people", was chosen to represent the republic. This must be why Gunderson chose the name Marianne Angelle for her sole fictional character, played here with a fragile swagger and charm by Nicolette Wagner. Angelle is the only one who escapes the Guillotine, and somehow (and this is the most ridiculous judgement) her survival lessened her merit in my eyes. Despite this prejudicial hindrance, Wagner plays her part well.

The fifth female character, with no lines but who steals every scene she is in, stands impassive and insensate until required. Madame la Guillotine, the leading lady created by Pete Parkin, appears backlit, silent and deadly. Nicknamed "La Veuve" (The Widow), she made her debut in France in 1792. She survived well into the 20th century, falling silent after fulfilling her final obligation in 1977, and is no doubt enjoying a well-deserved retirement having disposed of more than 10,000 guilty or innocent souls during her long career.

The costumes deserve a big shout out. Jason Godin has done a great job with the period clothing. Likewise the set design by resident designer Linda Wilson. I love the swirling Van Gogh style floor. Banx Tenorio does his usual good job with sound and light design, well executed (see what I did there) by board operator Michael Klein.

The Revolutionists runs through May 7, 2023, at The Adobe Theater, 9813 4th Street NW, Albuquerque NM. (Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. General admission $20. Discount $17 (Seniors, students, ATG/PBS members, military first responders). For tickets and information, please visit 505-898-9222