By Yuko Kurahashi
When historical women gather on stage—like Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls—their creativity, wittiness, and diversity transform into dynamic energy. The Moxie Theatre production of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn, exemplifies that transformation.
Set in Paris in 1793 at the beginning of the Reign of Terror (1793-1794), The Revolutionists portrays four women who played different roles in the French Revolution. The central figure is writer Olympe de Gouges, who championed equal rights for women in the French Republic and wrote plays and pamphlets as well as giving speeches including the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.
The Revolutionists begins with Olympe, at her desk, writing a play about the French Revolution. She is invigorated by the opening of a theatre for the masses by the general assembly, which ironically has become busy sending people to the “public performance” at the Place de la Revolution.
During the course of the play, Olympe writes a play about struggle, support and friendship among women through her “meta-theatrical” encounters with assassin Charlotte Corday, activist Marianne Angelle, and former French queen Marie Antoinette. Weaving violence, art, humor and pathos, Gunderson presents a moving quartet of the women who historically existed in the same time and place but never actually met.
Jo Anne Glover portrays Olympe, emphasizing the character’s passion for equality and justice as well as a sense of uncertainty and doubt about her role in the revolution. As the person who put the other women’s feelings and thoughts into words, Glover’s Olympe serves as a compassionate mediator.
The first visitor to Olympe’s study is Haitian rebel Marianne Angelle, played by Cashae Monya. Angelle is fighting for the freedom of slaves in the colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti). She worries about her husband Vincent, who left Paris for Haiti to join the rebel forces because she has not heard from him for many weeks. Unlike the other three characters, Marianne is a composite of “many real women from the Caribbean” (program note) who participated in the Haitian revolution. Monya’s petite but powerful presence, in her bright orange dress with a red sash which says “Revolution for all,” illustrates the passionate and compassionate revolutionist.
Monya’s Angelle also develops understanding and feeling for her opposite (in terms of class and status) Marie Antoinette, performed by Lisel Gorell-Getz. Gorell-Getz portrays a confident, grandiose, self-centered former queen while exhibiting evidence of her good heart. Their common roles as mother and wife bond them in spite of their differences.
Samantha Ginn plays a vibrant Charlotte Corday. She bursts into the room, searching for an author who can compose a “last line” for her before exercising her grand plan—the assassination of Jean Paul Marat. Ginn’s wild, fervent, and determined Corday brings light, with much humor, to one of the most famous murderous women.
The violent, inhumane and irrational reign by a series of different male “revolutionists” is represented by two Fraternités, played by Ginn and Gorell-Getz (after their characters’ execution) with demonic beak masks designed and constructed by Thorn and painted by Jennifer Brawn Gittings.
Gunderson’s script is filled with hilarious and absurd words and references which intentionally contradict and challenge the “appearance.” The characters references the musical Les Misérables to make fun of the limited number of well-known theatrical works about French revolutions. The four-letter words and provocative expressions bounce off as a linguistic bridge between the eighteenth century and the present.
Thorn and her designers exquisitely create the stage that contrasts different levels of realities in Gunderson’s “meta,” postmodern, absurdist, feminist work that reflects the melding of the past and present.
Scenic designer Emily Small creates a space that juxtaposes interior and exterior scenes. The interior scene, with a desk and two chairs with a rococo touch, suggests Olympe’s study and the court. Her set consists of a removable “wall” and a desk and two chairs. The device of a removable/folding wall adds an important locale, a jail cell created when one section of the wall opens to suggest the space for the women to wait for their trial and execution.
One large section of the wall is pasted with decorative pastel wallpaper, along with a chandelier. This contrasts to guillotine structures that repeat in the entire wall. Providing “painfully obvious” presence of guillotines in front of exterior brick back wall (created with gradient paint) evokes the ominous mood, pitting against the feminine and luxurious feelings emanating from the wallpaper and furniture. The central opening serves as the scaffold for the characters to stand and face their audiences at the time of their execution.
Sound designer Rachel LeVine’s sound effects evoke the ambience of the era including church bells and trumpets. Corday and Antoinette’s last words, composed by Olympe, are cut short (in the case of Antoinette, she does not have a chance to speak) by the eerie sound of the falling blade.
Lighting designer Sherrice Mojgani uses wide, focused, and washed lights to display multiple levels of reality and imagination in the play. For example, in the execution scenes, blue and focused light is used to illuminate Corday and Antoinette standing in the center rectangular opening.
Period costumes designed by Jennifer Brawn Gittings including skirts over panniers (to produce a flat and wide silhouette) and stomachers, ribbons, and tall wigs (designed by Missy Bradstreet) all reflect this historical time and place.
Olympe embodies Gunderson, writing about these underrepresented or “over represented” women to illuminate the absurd reality of “change” (revolution) followed by the same kind of abuse of power. As Marie says in the play, the definition of a revolution is “the turning about of an object on a central axis thereby landing its journeyman in the same exact spot whereon they started.”
Gunderson/Olympe serves as a Pirandello who is given a task of retrieving the “characters” from darkness, oblivion, and misunderstanding. Gunderson’s work reminds the audience of the power of documenting what people (women) hoped for and fought for in history, including fairness, humanity, equality, democracy, and friendship. The magical power of resurrecting these courageous characters is crystallized in the last scene in which, after her execution, Olympe, with her three “friends,” sing a song about their stories which will stay “in the beat of the beat of the beat of the heart” and will continue to be told.
The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Jennifer Eve Thorn
Playing through June 25, 2017
Moxie Theatre: 858-598-7620
Editor Note: Tonight’s (June 9) performance is co-sponsored by the Democratic Women’s Club, Together We Will and San Diego Indivisible. The theme is Women Revolutionaries: Past, Present, and Future. After the performance there will be a panel discussion on female revolutionaries throughout history and the role of women in the resistance today. SDSU Professors Dr. Doreen Mattingly (Women’s Studies) and Dr. Eve Kornfeld (History) will be participating. Other nights will feature different themes.