Review : The Revolutionists
By Perry Tannenbaum
It’s easier to enjoy Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a finely polished comedy gem from PaperHouse Theatre, than it is to find it. My GPS app resisted the 1776 Statesville Avenue address that was on my smartphone calendar, forcing me to choose between a Camp North End and a Goodyear Arts destination nearly 100 address numbers apart. Choosing the 1824 Statesville address got me to the Camp North End gate well enough after dark, and there was a PaperHouse emissary at the gate to tell us how to proceed. But as we navigated through a desolate concrete-and-asphalt landscape of vast warehouses, it was definitely an uh-oh episode for Milady GPS, who spun around from “Recalculating” to “Turn Right” in her instructions like a dog chasing its tail.
Following traffic wasn’t a reliable remedy, and I apologize to anyone who followed our lead on opening night and wound up parking a wilderness away from the PaperHouse performing space. Within sight of what looked like the building entrance – and another PaperHouse emissary – I still probably walked nearly a quarter of a mile after thinking I had sufficiently improved my parking spot. You walk through that building to another one.
Fortunately, PaperHouse is much better at producing plays than at getting you to them. (They will deploy more guides for future performances, I was assured.) Once you do arrive a the site of the action, with scenery by Jordan Ellis that strikes us as much with its simulated blood-spattered walls upstage as it does with the ascending scaffold in front of them, you can start to believe you’ve really reached the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror. You’re a bit of a pioneering revolutionary yourself if you’ve persevered and reached this secluded spot.
In the meta-world of her own – and history’s – making, The Revolutionists is Gunderson’s play, and it isn’t. We seem to be watching French feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges battling an onset of writer’s block as she ponders her next response to the rampaging Reign of Terror in the seclusion of her study. She is much in demand, for while Olympe is thrashing around, trying to settle on her message and her medium – shall it be another play? or perhaps a pamphlet? or a manifesto? – in walks Charlotte Corday, pressing the writer to compose a memorable line she can declaim when she assassinates the rabid revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.
Olympe isn’t in advertising, so one-liners and slogans aren’t her forte. She hopes to come up with the right zinger during the course of composing a longer work, a plan that doesn’t jibe well with Charlotte’s mad impatience. Just when you think that the comedy will crest with the standoff between Charlotte’s insane homicidal urgency and Olympe’s many artistic hesitancies, in walks Marie Antoinette, dressed to the 17’s by costume designer Barbi Van Schaick. Her Highness wants a rewrite, a play by Olympe that will rebrand her tarnished reputation.
Everything seems to become absurd and almost surreal at this point – and likely stays that way with Marie’s queenly vanities and Olympe’s nervous vacillations. But if you go home and Google, you find that Olympe de Gouges really did embark on writing a play to rehab Marie Antoinette’s reputation, and that the playwright really did put herself in that work as an enlightened agent who reconciles the queen with the revolutionaries. If that weren’t enough, it’s also true that de Gouges wrote the courageously feminist Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, thereby punching her ticket to the guillotine.
In the play, Olympe writes her manifesto in response to some principled prodding from Marianne Angelle, a Haitian revolutionary seeking independence from France, the one fictitious character in Gunderson’s script. In the real world, de Gouges seems to have had no problem standing up for herself – and against the Revolution’s bloodthirsty zealots.
So you might take the layered-on comedy a couple of ways. Gunderson may be telling us that she prefers her feminist heroes to be more fallible and true-to-life rather than impossibly glorified. Or she might be substituting herself for Olympe and showing us how far short of the French revolutionary’s greatness she falls.
Gunderson nudges us to that second, self-effacing hypothesis with little anachronisms that she occasionally drops into the dialogue, like Marie’s rebranding and rewrite ideas. PaperHouse artistic director Nicia Carla takes the anachronisms beyond what Gunderson specifies in her stage directions, and she doesn’t waste any time about it. Lydia Williamson makes her first entrance as Marianne carrying a garish, polka-dotted plastic suitcase, and when Shawna Pledger as Olympe begins writing at her escritoire, she quickly switches from a quill to a BIC ballpoint.
So Pledger is only superficially presiding over a play that Olympe has written for her queen with a plum role for herself. She is actually channeling Gunderson writing a dark comedy about herself, and if you saw Pledger last season as the fretful Sister Shelley who runs the soup kitchen in Grand Concourse, you already know that she excels at stressed-out indecisive women who are so eager to please. Surrounded by this madhouse, Williamson as Marianne doesn’t get as many comedy opportunities as the true historical figures, but she does loosen up from time to time, on temporary leave from her hectoring. Cumulatively, she leaves us with the impression that the French, whatever their politics, have no special call for commanding an empire.
Sarah Woldum has now haunted PaperHouse productions for two consecutive Octobers, last year as Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire Carmilla and this year as the notorious Corday. This time, she can milk a laugh or two from the assassin’s irrational zeal and her PR impulses, but she’s unmistakably insane. I’m not sure she ever blinked.
As for Caroline Bower, she does enter as an overdressed Barbi doll with some truly vain, insensitive, and bubbleheaded lines to delight us with. But Marie Antoinette’s grand gown, the ribbons she loves so frivolously, and the ridiculous piled-high wig and feathers all do come off as the Reign of Terror sweeps its scythe through our women, and its Bower’s humbling – still cohering with the incredibly spoiled brat we first saw – that brings home how monstrous the French Revolution turned out to be.
In the end, we might realize that our man’s world of today is hardly less bloody than it was in the fatal year of 1793 – and that Gunderson isn’t entirely playful or self-critical when hinting that she trembles in the face of such brutality.