Director Courtney O’Connor, the Nora Theatre, and its skilled cast do right by this hilarious historical comedy.
The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Presented by the Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA, through November 12.
by Ian Thal
It is 1793 and eighteenth-century French feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges (Lee Mikeska Gardner) is lying on the floor, scribbling with her quill feather. Perhaps, she thinks, getting away from her desk might cure her of writer’s block. Her hair is an unkempt rat nest – how can one bother with such superficialities when the Reign of Terror is going on outside her window? The circumstances are unprecedented and, like other intellectuals of her era, she is struggling to respond to upheaval in real time. Gardner’s performance expresses the emotional frenzy harrowing demands place on intellect in the midst of a revolutionary era – a knock at the door could be a commission, or an arrest warrant for something she has written.
Gouges is visited by Marianne (Alexandria King); she’s wearing a red revolutionary sash and her hair is in a wrap. Marianne, the only fictitious character in a play populated by historical characters, is composite of a number of black women involved in the French Revolution: she’s a spy for the liberators and an abolitionist whose husband is back in Haiti, fighting for the French colony’s independence. Their friendship isn’t pure fantasy; Gouges wrote plays and essays in favor of the causes Marianne fights for. King’s characterization makes the figure a fine foil: she’s certain of herself and how the world works in a way than none of the other women in the play will prove to be.
It isn’t long before another notable arrives at Gouges’ door: Charlotte Corday (Eliza Rose Fichter). Corday has sought out Gouges to pen some words for her as she prepares to assassinate Jean-Paul Marat (a scene portrayed in Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade). Gunderson’s portrayal of Corday often lapses into a dependence on the humor of declarative phrases; she repeatedly emits the stuff typical on social media: “because he’s awful” and “stabbitty stabbitty stabbitty.” Could it be that Gunderson is directing her satire at a perennial type of activist who is high on passion and buzz words and low on analytic thinking? The historical Corday, of course, though young (she was ten days shy of her twenty-fifth birthday when she was executed) was probably more comfortable consorting with intellectuals than we see here – after all, she was from a minor aristocratic family, a well-read woman. The meeting with Gouges may have never happened, though the playwright and the assassin were both sympathizers with the Girondists, a moderate faction in the revolutionary mix. The latter were, by this time, among the targets of the radical Jacobins, for whom Marat was one of the better known spokesmen. Fichter walks along a knife blade: she both a comc assassin and a tragic hero, ready to take the action fate has decreed and to accept the consequences.
A third visitor arrives – the still-living, yet dethroned Queen, Marie Antoinette (Celeste Oliva). The royal feels misunderstood, maligned, and simply wants to get the story straight. She at times exhibits the blindspots one expects of the privileged classes in the middle of revolution, but Gunderson’s revolutionists begin to see that, in many ways, despite the luxury she’s enjoyed, Antoinette’s agency as a human has been denied by the same patriarchal control they face. She was married off without regard to her desires; her own sexuality was subordinated to and libeled by political agendas of others.
Gunderson’s Antoinette comes off as a comic character, but despite the caricature she is given the dignity of being fully conscious of the tragedy she and France are facing. (This portrait is a far cry from the title character of David Adjmi’s insipid Marie Antoinette.) Oliva’s comic skills, especially the ability to pirouette on a écu, are perfect: she is simultaneously both the caricature we recognize and everything that might make us and the other characters question what we think we know.
Each of these visitors wants something different from Gouges: Marianne demands a new manifesto that condemns slavery, racism, and colonialism; Corday, a short speech to recite when she kills Marat; and for Antoinette, a play that presents her as a complex human being. But the presence of a fifth lady, Madame La Guillotine, hangs over this group (quite literally in this production). Among the numerous chandeliers that scenic designer Abby Shanker has hung over the otherwise spare stage is a sculpture representing that technological marvel of the Age of Reason: it made public execution swift, relatively painless, but convincingly bloody. Sound designer Elizabeth Cahill gives France’s national razor the finality of wordless dialogue.
Inspired by his discovery that James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, and V.I. Lenin were all in Zürich at around the same time, Tom Stoppard had these figures dramatically interact in his 1974 play Travesties. Many a dramatist since has attempted to duplicate this real life reinvented formula. Rarely has anyone pulled this off this challenge with as much skill or ethical seriousness as Lauren Gunderson displays in The Revolutionists. Yes, Gunderson fudges a bit with time: Gouges goes off-stage for a scene in which she delivers her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen to the National Assembly. (She published the document in 1791, a year before Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.) In the period covered by the drama she manages to start her play for Marie Antoinette: France Preserved, or The Tyrant Dethroned. The text was used as evidence of her royalist sentiments when the Jacobins eventually arrested her. Gouges’ crime was to indicate that the Queen could be educated and reformed. The suggestion was that a constitutional monarchy was a viable alternative both to the current Terror and the pre-Revolutionary absolutism of the Ancien Régime. There was the notion that revolutions could be kinder.
Elizabeth Rocha’s costume design gives each of the women a distinctive color palette. Subtle earth tones for Gouges; a turmeric-colored dress with white flowing sleeves and head wrap for Marianne; Corday’s elegant red jacket over a white dress with red stripes; and there’s an extravagant gown of sky blue and cloud-white for Marie Antoinette, complete with bows and an absurdly artificial-looking (and gigantic) beehive of a wig.
Director Courtney O’Connor, the Nora Theatre, and its skilled cast generate an enormous amount of fun and provocative thought out of Gunderson’s hilarious script; the production offers up a smart tragicomedy that taps into an unprecedented revolutionary time to shed light on our own era’s unprecedented tragedy.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report