Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The third term in that trio of watchwords, fraternity, or brotherhood, reveals a massive limitation of the revolution: it was a revolution of and for men. Women who attempted to take a role were often executed as rabble-rousers or enemies of the revolution. Lauren Gunderson's play The Revolutionists, addresses this major flaw by way of a fantasy set in 1793 Paris as the Reign of Terror roiled. She brings together four women, each vested in the outcome of the cataclysm on their doorstep. The play, mounted by PRIME Productions, is now running at Park Square Theatre. tHE play and its staging are wonderful examples of all that theater can be: provocative, informative and entertaining.
When I say it succeeds in entertaining, let me be clear, this is a comedy, with gallows humor to be sure (how not, with a guillotine visible on stage), but it is nonetheless quite hilarious. Yet when it needs to do so, it is able to transition to deeply felt anger, terror, sorrow, and even admiration bordering on love. Throughout, it also informs about issues, both well known and little known, at stake for these and all other women during that tempestuous time.
The four women on stage include three who were historically real. There are no small roles, but most central is Olympe de Gouges (Allison Edwards), a feminist playwright and novelist who at first supported the revolution, then pulled back when she realized that women were not intended to receive its benefits. In response to the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen," published in 1789 and one of the sparks that inflamed the revolution, de Gouges, in 1791, published the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen," challenging the assumption of male authority and the subservience of women. As the play opens, de Gouges is struggling to write a play that will express her concerns in the context of the revolutionary fervor.
The other two historically real characters are Charlotte Corday and Marie Antoinette. Charlotte Corday (Jasmine Porter) was beheaded for the assassination of Jean Paul Marat, leader of the extremist Jacobin faction. She supported the revolution, but not the extreme Jacobin measures which led to the execution of tens of thousands of French citizens. She claimed to have killed one man to save the lives of a hundred thousand. Marie Antoinette (Jane Froiland) is well known as the French queen, wife of King Louis XVI, who lost her head after saying to the hungry mob, "Let them eat cake." Was she a revolutionary? Not in any typical sense. As depicted in the play, she is something of a pampered airhead, yet she comes up with some unexpectedly wise perspectives. In any event, one of the charges for which she was executed was that she–a woman–interfered with affairs of state, which was viewed as treason. Did that not mark her as a revolutionary, in spite of herself?
The fourth character, Marianne Angelle (Tia Marie Tanzer), is a composite of women involved in the slave revolt in Haiti, then a French colony, that was underway as the revolution roiled in Paris. De Gouges was an outspoken abolitionist and supported the slave rebellion. In the play, Marianne, a free Black woman, has come to Paris to win the revolution's leaders' backing for her people's struggle. She stops to see De Gouges, an old comrade, to solicit help preparing a pamphlet to promote her cause.
All four women take tremendous risks, though the play is more about their ideas than about their actions. Ideas, often couched in extremely funny dialogue, circulate freely: about the rights denied to woman, about whether art actually changes lives, about the ethics of acts of violence such as Charlotte Corday's, about the culpability of those who never sought power but had it thrust upon them, and in the end, about what difference all of this will make. The latter is frothily expressed in Marie Antoinette's musing, "Isn't a revolution something that spins around in a circle and winds up exactly where it started–like a merry-go-round? What's the point of that? What a colossal waste of everyone's time!"
Gunderson drops a great many contemporary phrases and behaviors upon her characters, which if done poorly can feel like cheap shots, but the playwright employs these most skillfully, as when Marie remarks about Charlotte, the soon-to-be assassin: "The chutzpah of that girl! And such good hair!" Shelli Place directs the staging as if there's a cab outside with the meter ticking. That is, things are kept moving and chagning swiftly, creating a sense of urgency and time running out. There is so much going on, so many ideas and plot developments, one's attention never wavers.
The four actors are terrific. Froiland had a head start, having played the same role in much the same vein in David Adjmi's comedy Marie Antoinette, mounted by Walking Shadow Theatre Company in 2017. I called that "a bravura performance" and Froiland is just as good this time around. Edwards is compelling as Olympe de Gouges, playing a strong woman in a society that detests strong women, and an artist who strives for her art not to be an escape, but a vehicle for change. There is also an element of narcissism in her character, which Edwards conveys without overselling the point.
Tanzer is wholly persuasive as Marianne Angelle. While her character has the fewest laugh lines, Tanzer excels in positing parallels between the struggle on the streets of Paris and the struggles of slaves in her homeland, as well as the heartbreaking cost of her work. Porter, as Charlotte Corday, comes on a bit strong in her entrance, which threw me off a bit, until it became clear that her maniacal tone is the result of having ratcheted up her courage to commit a terrifying act. Later, Porter expresses other dimensions of the youngest of these woman, delivering a well-rounded performance.
M.J. Leffler's set ably serves the needs of the play, with the ever-present guillotine looming above. Karin Olson's lighting greatly assists in setting aside spaces and conveying varying degrees of tensions. Lily Isaacson's projections are an important element of the play, both in establishing the scenes and in offering a tolerable way for the audience to "witness" the drop of the guillotine's blade. Anita Kelling provides an array of sounds–including the rabble out on the street–that further give the play its edge, while Sonya Berloviz has designed costumes that become calling cards for each of the characters, depicting their personas through their choice of apparel.
Lauren Gunderson is perhaps the most prolific playwright now working in the United States, with twenty-three plays churned out since 2001. Not only that, but her plays spread like wildfire. She was the most produced playwright in American (after Shakespeare) three different years since 2015, including this current (2022-2023) theater season. In the case of the The Revolutionists, it is clear that the quality as well as quantity of her work is formidable. This play will have you laughing and leave you thinking. A big thank you goes to PRIME Productions for culling it out and delivering such a fine staging, and to Park Square for hosting them.
The Revolutionists runs through April 16, 2023, at Park Square Theatre, Proscenium Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $40 - $55. Seniors (62 and up), $5 discount; military personnel $10 discount with promo code MIL; under age 30, $21 tickets with promo code 30U; students and educators with ID, $16 tickets, Area Two only. For tickets and information, please call 651-291-7005 or visit parksquaretheatre.org. For information about PRIME Productions, visit www.primeprods.org.
Playwright: Lauren Gunderson; Director: Shelli Place; Set Design: M.J. Leffler; Costume Design: Sonya Berloviz; Lighting Design: Karin Olsen; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Wig Design: Bee Tremmel; Properties Design: Marc Berg; Projection Design: Lily Isaacson; Projection Supervisor: Andrew Isaacson; Stage Manager: Ashley Raper; Assistant Stage Manager: Keara J. Lavandowska; Producer: Megan West-Sharp.
Cast: Alison Edwards (Olympe de Gouges), Jane Froiland (Marie Antoinette), Jasmine Porter (Charlotte Corday), Tia Marie Tanzer (Marianne Angelle).