The Revolutionists takes a fresh look at the French Revolution through the experiences of four women, three real and one composite. Two are familiar: Queen Marie Antoinette (Kaitlyn Samuel Rosin) and Charlotte Corday (Holly Portman). But chances are you've never heard of playwright Olympe de Gouges (Alexandra Blouin) or activist Marianne Angelle (Lakia Solomon), who was constructed from multiple fragmented sources because no complete records of black women activists from the colonies could be found.
Set in Paris in 1793, The Revolutionists revisits familiar territory for playwright Lauren Gunderson, whose Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight focused on a French woman whose important discoveries were overshadowed by her relationship with a famous man. At the center of this story is Olympe de Gouges, who has tasked herself with writing a play that delivers the voice of the French Revolution. Her Haitian activist friend Marianne Angelle is in desperate need of tracts, pamphlets — anything to help promote her cause — after all, it was more than a little ironic that the French were fighting for their freedom while continuing to run slave colonies. So, she tells de Gouges to forget playwriting; if she really wants to make history, she should write a manifesto, not a monologue.
They're still in heated discussion when in bursts Charlotte Corday. She, too, needs a writer but her need is for a few succinct yet significant last words she can use as she stands at the guillotine after stabbing Marat in his bathtub. History, of course, writes off Corday as a madwoman while revering Marat as a patriot. And if all that were not challenging enough for an already-blocked writer, the door is again flung open, this time by the besieged Queen Marie Antoinette, who's looking for someone to rewrite her life as a more sympathetic character (but still royal — ribbons and sparkles are important).
What happens to the characters in the rest of the play is largely historically predictable but Gunderson's zinging dialogue — miniature guillotines marketed for wives to make salad and kids to kill mice, Corday on a deadline (no pun intended) and the only one with enough cuteness to get away with murder, Marie Antoinette describing sailing ship replicas in her hair and giving birth in front of hundreds of people — breathes new life into a familiar storyline. And I bet you didn't know de Gouges wrote a feminist manifesto in the style of the Declaration of Independence and presented it to the National Assembly. (They booed her out of the building.)
As a #metoo moment for the 18th century, The Revolutionists' heart is in the right place but Gunderson gets a little heavy-handed when it comes to making political and sociological points, most of which fall on Angelle, as the designated activist, to deliver. It is clearly not coincidental that her composite identity is named for the symbol of the French Republic. Still, Solomon infuses the polemics with a healthy dose of human emotion, saving Marianne from the extremes of social-justice-warrior-itis and keeping the audience rooting for her as she anguishes over her missing husband. At the other end of the societal spectrum, Rosin has a ball with the supremely self-absorbed Marie Antoinette, yet still arouses sympathy when she talks about how she's misrepresented in the court of public opinion. Portman is magnetic as Corday, teetering on the edge of craziness but always pulling herself back just in time to remind us that she is "killing one man to save 100,000." And Blouin puts in a masterful performance as de Gouges, treading a fine line between vulnerability and ambition, courage and self-flagellation, never missing a beat, even when a door handle on the set came off in her hand.
Ruthi Engelke directs the actors with a sure hand but plunging the stage into darkness a couple of times rather than moving the lighting around is confusing for an audience, which is apt to think "lights out" an hour into the first act means the intermission is here and they should clap. It's a small point but does interrupt the flow of the performance.
Laura Rhinehart's scenic design makes excellent use of the challenging Redwood Curtain stage — no scene changes required — and Todd Hoberecht's lighting design largely takes care of guiding the audience's focus. Jennifer Hood's costumes are quite wonderful, as are Finn Ferguson's hair, makeup and wigs. Kai Lassen's sound design effectively captures the sounds of revolution in the streets and on the scaffold, and Carin Billings' choice of properties enhances the characters without getting in their way. The quietly effective stage management is by Yvettte Faust.
Remember that whole Liberté, egalité, fraternité thing? Sororité didn't come into it. But it matters who tells the story and, as Marie Antoinette notes, "Sometimes a revolution needs a woman's touch." Ain't that the truth.
The Revolutionists runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Sept. 28 at Redwood Curtain Theatre.
Pat Bitton is a freelance writer/editor based in Eureka who is theoretically retired but you know how that goes. She prefers she/her.
North Coast Repertory Theatre weaves Agatha Christie's Spider's Web Sept. 13 through Oct. 6, with comedy and cold-blooded murder at a dinner party. Call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.