‘The Revolutionists’ is a head of the game at Theatre Nova
ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Set in 1793 Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, The Revolutionists starts with a beheading. More follow.
But audiences don’t flock to the theater for gloom and doom.
“The play can’t be about terror and death,” announces the character playwright Olympe de Gouges, scarcely five minutes into the show. Despite the life-and-death subject matter, her play must be a comedy.
Mission accomplished. Laugh-out-loud moments pepper this sassy script, which is leavened with moving moments. This play has women with moxie in spades.
The Revolutionists, running through Sept. 17 at Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor, is a cleverly constructed script by Lauren Gunderson. She laces together the lives of four French heroines – three of whom were beheaded – although these women probably never met in real life.
With the bloody revolution broiling in the streets, three women seek out de Gouges, portrayed by Diane Hill, in her Paris drawing room for words they imagine will help them change the world.
Charlotte Corday – presented as a fiery force of nature by Sara Rose – is on a mission to maim radical Jean-Paul Marat for inciting violence that has resulted in many deaths. Corday asks de Gouges to pen, in advance, the final words she will utter before her execution for stabbing Marat to death as he bathes in a tub.
Former queen Marie Antoinette also shows up at de Gouge’s seeking “a rewrite” of history. She’d like her majesty restored, thank-you very much.
Also in need of a writer is Marianne Angelle, a free black woman whose people have been enslaved on French colonial sugar plantations in modern-day Haiti. Angelle, a composite character, is a spy who needs a declaration that aligns slaves with French peasants in the fight for freedom.
De Gouges yearns to write a very important play that – with wit and satire – captures and preserves the women’s voice of the French Revolution. She battles writer’s block to pen her play as The Revolutionists unfolds in masterful “play within a play” fashion.
But de Gouges prefers to keep a safe, artistic distance in the stories she tells. Finally, with help from Angelle, de Gouges discovers that the route to producing a play that matters is to “find the heart, not the art.” As the executioner leads her to the gallows, she accepts that it’s impossible to “write the world” without living – and dying – in it.
Director David Wolber has assembled a strong comedic quartet of actresses, led by Melissa Beckwith, whose over-the-top portrayal of Marie Antoinette is superb. (Sigh. Gasp. Retort.) A scene where she – the tumbling aristocracy – comforts Angelle – the former slave – is a highlight of the play.
K Edmonds is steely as Angelle, especially in the final scene as she leads de Gouges, just before she is put to death, on an exercise to write alternate endings to her play.
The Revolutionists has a lot to say, but not much of it is actually about the history and politics of the French Revolution. The sparse props are more Victorian (British) than French. The actresses rarely try to pronounce the French words as a French speaker would.
See this fine play, but know that it’s really a feminist play with American treatment of French themes.
The Revolutionists is a good time that will leave you with lots to ponder.
As Marie Antoinette would say, “Hilarious!”