“I’m here for a re-write,” Marie Antoinette tells feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges in Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists,” now playing at Theatre Nova.
But the prevailing edit achieved by the play itself is that France’s longstanding motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” gets tweaked so that the final word becomes “sororité.”
For sisterhood is precisely what develops when four very different, strong, smart, opinionated women (whose paths would have probably never crossed in real life) spend time talking things out in de Gouges’ study during the bloodiest years of the French Revolution.
Haunted by a looming guillotine that stands in a back corner of the stage, de Gouges (Diane Hill) struggles to create a revolutionary feminist play that’s not about “terror and death.” Marianne Angelle (K Edmonds) – a freeborn black woman fighting to free slaves in her homeland, French colonized Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) – soon arrives from an intelligence-gathering mission in Nice; and Charlotte Corday (Sara Rose), a young woman determined to stab political journalist Jean-Paul Marat, appears next, demanding that de Gouges write a historically memorable line for her to utter.
Corday also, however, throws biting critiques de Gouges’ (and by extension, the audience’s) way, arguing that “plays are only for the rich,” and saying, in reference to the violent zealots she believes have derailed the Revolution, “they are taking over, and they are cruel, and you want to tell me a story? Do you see how insane that seems to a woman who is going to kill a man with her own hands?”
The question of how (and if) systemically disempowered women can make a substantive difference in the face of widespread oppression and violence is one that comes up repeatedly in “The Revolutionists,” an unconventional play that manages to be both sharply funny and moving, thanks in part to David Wolber’s deft direction.
The play’s most hilarious moments belong to Marie Antoinette (Melissa Beckwith), who’s last to arrive, and who insists that whole cake thing “was taken out of context.” Beckwith masterfully balances the deposed queen’s out-of-touch, chirping flakiness with a clear-eyed sadness that subtly colors the character’s more serious moments, and thus gives Marie cliché-smashing complexity. Beckwith’s performance is truly a marvel.
Edmonds, for her part, functions more as the play’s heart. Angelle’s intellect, her calm focus, and her willingness to challenge ideas drive many of the play’s most powerful debates-in-miniature, and Edmonds’ choice to exercise quiet restraint during her character’s most heart-wrenching scene makes the moment all the more devestating. Rose, skillfully filling the story’s gutsy, impassioned “woman of action” role, delivers on the play’s humor, particularly its “meta” moments of self-awareness (and there are several, including the line, “Art about the rich is one thing, but art about rich people’s art is too far”). Finally, Hill – as the playwright struggling to write the very work unfolding before us – provides a kind of anchor, stridently insisting that the art her character creates has power, and can help push the world toward a better future, while the women with which she surrounds herself poke holes in this core belief. Through Hill, we see Gunderson herself, grappling with the limits and potential of her medium.
Forrest Hejkal’s savvy period costumes and hair design – from Marianne’s blue head-wrap to Marie’s white, beribboned wig – effectively suggest the era and locale, but Hejkal takes pains so that the characters’ dress never distracts from their words. Similarly, Hejkal’s un-fussy set for “The Revolutionists” consists of a painted backdrop that suggests the fires burning beyond the walls of de Gouges’ study (as well as the breakdown of structures); a doorway; the aforementioned looming guillotine, suggested by two tall poles; and a couple of pieces of furniture (de Gouges’ desk and a chair).
Because that unseen guillotine “falls” a few times during the show, and because we must also hear the occasional rumblings of French Revolution crowds, Carla Milarch’s thoughtful sound design plays no small role; and Daniel C. Walker’s lighting design not only underscores the play’s shifts in tone, but helps build suspense when each woman, in turn, finally faces the inevitable.
(By way of an aside, I must confess that while watching “The Revolutionists” at the Yellow Barn, I experienced palpable flashbacks of sitting in the seats at the now-defunct Performance Network Theatre, where Wolber and TN founder Carla Milarch spent many years working side-by-side. Perhaps the combination of a risky, well-executed production of a Michigan premiere show, and the specific artists involved, and the responsive, good-sized crowd at a Sunday matinee – maybe all these things worked in tandem to produce this associative response in me. But for local theatergoers who dearly miss the professional company that presented some pretty great work in Ann Arbor over the course of three decades, you may feel the same familiar flicker of hope and nostalgia that I did while watching TN’s current production.)
Interestingly, Gunderson chose to focus on a very specific, distant moment of history in “The Revolutionists,” but the dialogue’s style, and many of its jokes, are wholly contemporary. Three of the play’s characters were inspired by real people – only Angelle is a fictional composite – but the three never met in life, so Gunderson has thrown them together in order to imagine. This allows her (and us) to consider not only what they might say to each other, but also what they might say in response to the questions that haunt and consume the playwright herself.
Indeed, when we reach the show’s final moment, it certainly seems as though all we’ve witnessed may have simply taken place within de Gouges’ mind. But that would only be fitting, since that’s how theater works: a playwright’s dream comes to life on stage for a while, then comes to an end.
“The Revolutionists” runs Thursdays-Sundays through September 17. Showtimes are 8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.) & 2 p.m. (Sun.) at The Yellow Barn, 416 W. Huron in Ann Arbor. Tickets are $20 or pay what you can afford, available in advance at theatrenova.org or 734-635-8450.