Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists is good politics but only so-so theater. Gunderson has the entirely creditable aim of bringing to the stage women of the French Revolution whom (male) history has marginalized. So we meet Olympe de Gouges, playwright and feminist, Charlotte Corday, assassin of Jean-Paul Marat, Marianne Angelle, Haitian revolutionary (a composite figure), and, not so marginally, Marie Antoinette, doomed queen and notorious spendthrift. In the course of two acts, we watch these women talk wittily about their ideals and their fears, and finally we see three of them led off to the guillotine. These last scenes are the most successful: Here are complex, often sympathetic figures facing death with great courage. But prior to their beheadings, we’re faced with a seemingly endless conversation that lacks credible urgency and importance, and with meta-theatrical moments — about a play called The Revolutionists — that feel dated and predictable. I’m all in favor of rescuing great women from historical oblivion, but this play seldom descends from its self-conscious flair to truly acquaint us with the females who sacrificed everything for their causes. Gunderson’s intentions may be noble, but her results are often tedious.
If there’s a central character in the play, its de Gouges, played persuasively by Georgia Mallory Guy. Perhaps de Gouges’ greatest work was her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791), and The Revolutionists does spend a few brief moments reminding us of that document. But for the most part Guy’s de Gouges is a stand-in for Gunderson, struggling to write a play about women in the Revolution, and defending the rights of “story” over “fact.” Guy gives this role verve and a triple shot of personality, but since de Gouges’ major challenge seems to be nothing more than writer’s block, even fine acting can’t grab our emotions or generate much suspense.
A more conventional heroine is India Davisen as Angelle, whom Gunderson invented to stand in for all the unsung females of the Haitian revolution. Davisen’s a wonderful actor, and gives her character not only political commitment but a deep emotional presence; her attachment to a freedom fighter risking everything on the island eventually becomes an opportunity for one of The Revolutionists’ most moving sequences (all the others concern executions). Andresia Moseley also does top-notch work as Corday, whose murder of Marat was turned into art almost immediately by Jacques-Louis David in his Marat Assassiné (1793), and then again 170 years later in Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade (1963). Moseley’s Corday is single-minded, convinced that she has no path in life except the one that leads to Marat’s bath (where he daily treats his skin disease) and then to her own death on the scaffold. Gunderson doesn’t make much effort to evaluate the assassination (did it save lives as Corday thought it would?), but anyone who’s studied the French Revolution will appreciate that its unfolding involved mind-boggling complications, too twisted, perhaps, for a few seconds’ summation on stage. (On the other hand, Weiss made some of those paradoxes into a brilliant, revelatory work.)
Surprisingly enough, the one character who does manage to stay interesting throughout The Revolutionists is Marie Antoinette, played coyly by Katie Calahan as a spoiled, childish, but also ironic pawn of history, neither deluded by the perks of royalty nor reconciled to her final condemnation. There’s nothing queenly about Calahan’s Marie; she comes across as fragile, understated, simple in her enjoyment of life on the upper rung, but goodhearted too, and not nearly smart enough to affect the events whirling around her. This is a wholly unexpected, memorable performance.
The play is directed with great dynamism by Stageworks producing artistic director Karla Hartley, and its set and costumes are designed by the remarkable Frank Chavez. Chavez’s work deserves special mention: His set, with its mirrored walls, elegant sculpture, beautiful divan, chandelier, and large doors framed with gold, is one of the most stunning I’ve ever seen in a Stageworks production. His period costumes too are extravagantly lovely, except in those cases — Marie Antoinette’s before her beheading, for example — when circumstances dictate something poignantly modest. I’ve seen better shows at this theater, but few so visually attractive.
The recovery of great women — and of other long-marginalized groups — from an undeserved obscurity is an admirable task, and I’m glad author Gunderson is committed to it. The Revolutionists may not be as successful as it could be, but it’s a reminder that what we take for history is a much-censored distortion, one that artists — if they’re so disposed — can aim to remedy. So playwrights, look to forgotten history, find forgotten heroines. And then turn them into... a better play than this one.