The Revolutionists is feminist history laced with an argument for the value of art in revolution. Playwright Lauren Gunderson describes it as a “comedic quartet about four women at the height of the Reign of Terror. Liberté, égalité… sororité.”
In Chicago’s Strawdog Theatre’s new production, a quartet of badass women, three real and one fictional, team up to fight for the rights of women, art and freedom during the French Revolution. Denise Yvette Sema directs this two-hour production, in which the outstanding cast frolics smartly through two acts to the inevitable fateful conclusion. The dialogue, full of anachronisms and more than a few contemporary references, is funny and, ultimately, moving.
It’s Paris in 1793 and playwright Olympe de Gouges (Kat McDonnell) is trying to write a new play. Marianne Angelle (Kamille Dawkins as the invented character)) appears to discuss the revolution; she demands that Olympe write about France’s treatment of its slave colonies in the Caribbean, the source of its sugar, coffee and indigo. Marianne is from Haiti and she and her husband are in France to fight for their freedom.
Charlotte Corday (Izis Mollinedo), a beautiful and determined activist, also has a cause. She’s going to murder the reviled radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat in his bath. She seeks out Olympe because she needs a writer to help her with her lines. What does she say as she stabs Marat? What are her last words when she goes to the guillotine, as she knows she will? But, “One man every once in a while really needs to die.”
The fourth member of the quartet is a sparkly, nervous Marie Antoinette (Sarah Goeden), who is angry because she’s no longer a queen. She wants Olympe to salvage her reputation in the new play about the revolution. She tries to explain away some of the historical canards about her reputation.
Gunderson’s conceit about the four women ready for revolution is clever, and in act one, a bit too mannered, even coyly cute. But act two becomes more serious as the women fight for their causes. Olympe, who tends to be a stay-at-home activist, writes her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” and takes it to the National Assembly, where things do not go well. Charlotte succeeds in her mission to do away with Marat. And Marie Antoinette learns empathy and comforts Marianne, who fears her husband has died in revolutionary action.
Was Marie Antoinette an airhead, as she is often depicted? The historical record is mixed, but some historians think she was not the queen who advised peasants what to eat when they no longer had bread.
Sema’s staging is adroit with lecterns at each side of the stage equipped with microphones where the characters make “historic” announcements. Alex Casillas is responsible for scenic design and Spencer Meeks for arrangements and sound design, which includes significant percussive themes as carts roll through the streets of Paris. Claire Chrzan’s lighting dramatizes the work of “Madame Guillotine.” (During the Reign of Terror, the guillotine was considered a more humane form of execution than the previous methods of hanging or beheading by sword or axe.)
Leah Hummel costumes the four women in white, with each design suited to the character. Olympe is in a modest gown with a shawl collar, as she is often pictured. Marie Antoinette wears lingerie, a boned hoopskirt, and a giant wig. Marianne is turbaned and wears a short dress, while Charlotte wears trousers and an overdress.
Lauren M. Gunderson has been the most produced playwright in America for the last two years, and her work has won several awards, including the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics New Play Award for I and You. Most recently, her play The Book of Will was produced in Chicago. Her other plays include Exit Pursued By A Bear, The Taming, Toil And Trouble, Silent Sky, Bauer, Emilie, andMiss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,co-authored with Margot Melcon.
The Revolutionists continues through December 29 at Strawdog Theatre Company’s new home at 1802 W. Berenice. Tickets are $35-40. Performances are Thursday-Sunday with an added pay-what-you-can performance Monday, December 3, at 7:30pm.