“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” It’s a notion that makes a good button and an even better play in Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a gutsy, free-wheeling and imaginative French revolutionary comedy (with beheadings) brought to life in a regional premiere from Imprint Theatreworks at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park.
Imprint founders Joe Messina and Ashley H. White co-direct this flight of fancy with appropriate verve and élan—and with a cast who yank us right into the script’s passion, quirkiness, and moments of woman-to-woman truth-telling. Jessie Wallace’s vivid costumes, with a nod to the glam-rock divas of the 1980s, are scrumptious, and sound designer Riley Larson pumps things up with you-go-girl songs by Pat Benatar, Tina Turner, Blondie and others.
The four women of The Revolutionists (three are historic characters, one a mash-up) are strong and outspoken, and in the chop-shop Paris of 1793, that’s a risky combination. It’s the Reign of Terror, after all. Angry men are large and in charge—and as usual, women are discovering they don’t have a seat at the table.
Playwright and essayist Olympe de Gouges (Marianne Galloway) is fed up with a revolution that promotes the “Rights of Man” but expects women to know their place. In Galloway’s electric performance, Olympe (chic in a man’s ruffled shirt and breeches tucked into boots) is like a string of firecrackers, exploding with one idea after another. Eyes glittering, waving a quill pin in the air, she’s after just the right words—the ones she believes will open men’s eyes and change her world.
Three remarkable women invade her writer’s den, one after the other—each wanting Olympe (it’s pronounced oh-LAMP) to whip up a few “right words” for them.
Marianne Angelle (Sky Williams), a free woman of color, fights slavery in the French-held island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Marianne needs a “manifesto” and asks Olympe to write it. Young Charlotte Corday (Dani Holway) is full of blonde ambition: she has a knife, and a plan to assassinate famed journalist Jean-Paul Marat (his finger-pointing has sent thousands to the guillotine). “I need a line,” she tells Olympe—great words to make her deed immortal.
And what could deposed queen Marie-Antoinette (Jennifer Kuenzer) want, barging in with her piled-high wig and glittering skirts? Better press coverage, it seems. On the run from the Paris mob, she hopes Olympe can do a rewrite of her life and image. “Can it be a musical?” she asks plaintively, playing like a kitten with a flurry of ribbons in her hand. Oh, dear.
The women, even the seemingly ditzy queen, are aware of the danger they’re in. But Gunderson also leaves a trail of clues that both time and reality are floating free in this space. “I feel like an ingénue tied to a train track,” says Marie-Antoinette. “And what are trains?”
De Gouges wants to help this unlikely band of sisters (she’s proud that “My plays piss off just the right kind of people”), but events may move faster than her pen can write. What will come first, the right words, or the heavy knock at the door—and the walk to the scaffold? It’s important to her to get things down on paper. History is a story, she says, and things get very dark when the wrong stories are the only ones being told.
And yes, yes, it’s still a comedy. There’s no way these four characters can share the same room and not be funny. Galloway is the jittery, strangely upbeat leader of the pack. Holway’s one-track intensity (she can’t stop playing the cool “young assassin”) is comic at first—but in the end, forces us to take this young woman seriously. Williams’ portrait of the mostly nameless black women who fought for freedom (“No one is writing me down!” she cries) beautifully conveys Marianne’s brains and warmth—and the personal price she pays.
Angelle and the queen share initials (MA and MA—and they’re both moms), plus a memorable scene in which they swap stories about husbands. Kuenzer is hilarious and then moving as a character who at first seems “only” for comic relief. But she’s a wife and mother, and while she admits “I deserve some of this” she’s very real and vulnerable. (Lest we think woman-specific political slurs are a modern invention, the mob’s favorite nickname for the foreign-born queen was L’Autrichienne—the “Austrian bitch.”)
As is often the case with Gunderson’s intriguing plays (Exit, Pursued by a Bear; The Taming; Silent Sky), this is a story about women who lack power in their lives—and who try, in terms dramatic and/or comical, to get some. The playwright’s heady mix of razor-sharp dialogue, offbeat comedy and dead-serious themes seem just right a time when we’re just as likely to get our darkest news from our funniest shows. The Guardian newspaper recently cited Gunderson as the “most produced” playwright in America (who isn’t named Shakespeare) during the 2017-2018 season.
The Revolutionists makes a lively addition to the string of Gunderson plays we’ve seen produced in North Texas over the past few years, notably at Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre, where Gunderson was championed early on by the company’s late founder Rose Pearson. There are some missing pearls on the string, though—personally, I’d like to see her well reviewed Shakespeare-adjacent play, The Book of Will.
Pretty please, anyone?