An important work amid political crisis: “The Revolutionists”

Presented by Newton Nomadic Theater
Written by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Nicole Galland

Performance dates: Nov 1 – Nov 10
Various locations:
Fri 11/1 & Sat 11/2, 7:30 PM: Gregorian Rugs, Newton Lower Falls, 2284 Washington St.
Fri 11/8 & Sat 11/9, 7:30 PM: Finch/Robinson home, Waban
Sun 11/10, 4:00 PM: Dunn Gaherin’s Pub, Newton Upper Falls, 344 Elliot St.
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Review by Chloé Cunha

(Newton, MA) What do you do when you’re in the middle of a revolution and your only discernible skills are to write good plays? According to The Revolutionists, whatever happens, don’t write a musical (but maybe add a puppet or two)!

Set in the height of Revolutionary-era France, The Revolutionists revolves around four women, three of whom are drawn from real-life historical figures. The story centers mainly around feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges (Noni Lewis), who is trying desperately to write a transcendent piece of art amid intense societal upheaval. Freedom fighter Marianne Angell (Lillian Gomes), the lone fictional character of the group, is a Caribbean spy rebelling against slavery in the French colonies. Famed Jean Paul Marat-murderer Charlotte Corday (Abigail Dickson) is hellbent on carrying out her aforementioned assassination, and deposed monarch Marie Antoinette (Linda Goetz) is surviving as best she can while floating on a powder-pink cloud of denial. 

All four collide with deeply entertaining tit-for-tat dialogue. As entertaining as can be, anyway– they don’t call this period of French history “The Terror” for nothing.

The writing is quick, fun, and endlessly quotable. Some choice witticisms include Olympe characterizing her difficulty with writing, concluding, “I’m not blocked, just mentally hibernating.” At another point Marie bemoans the French national symbol by wondering aloud, “What is a fleur-de-lis? A sad flower, a terrible fork?”

At times, Olympe may come across as almost too whimsical and carefree. In its goal to make her appear charming and fun, the narrative undercuts the historical figure’s actual radical political activism. She spends so much of the play worrying over how to write an important work amid political crisis, you might think she never did much actual writing.

In one moment, for example, Marianne urges Olympe to write abolitionist pamphlets on her behalf, but Olympe hedges, claiming that she is far better suited as a playwright. In reality, Olympe de Gouges was a tremendously outspoken advocate for abolitionism, writing numerous pamphlets herself and frequently writing to newspapers.

Some of Olympe’s indecision may come from the deeply meta-narrative style of the play. Characters often speak with modernisms, and there is a large amount of dramatic irony. Written in 2017, it’s not a far stretch to imagine The Revolutionists as a commentary on our current tumultuous– though thankfully less bloody– moment in American history. On some level, Olympe functions as a stand-in for playwright Lauren Gunderson. The playwright can be forgiven for inserting some of herself in Olympe, given the real woman inserted herself into her final unfinished play (spoiler alert..?).

Still, poetic license aside the story is interesting, and original, especially to an American audience who may not know the history as well. For all its fun, there is a long, ominous shadow hanging over every character. In a rare moment of calm, Olympe asks her friend Marianne if she has also been dreaming of guillotines every night, to which Marianne responds, no, she dreams of chains.

The cast had good chemistry overall, but some performances were notably stronger than others. Lewis was superb, mastering comedic timing and pathos in turn. Goetz was very fun to watch and portrayed the much vilified Marie Antoinette with a lot of humanity. When she gently gifts Marianne a teacup with a bow as she is carted off to be arrested, you can’t help but feel some pity for her. A special mention should be made to Marie’s intricate and beautiful costume as well. The colorful flowers in her hair were a nice touch.

The Revolutionists may not be for everyone, but if you are a fan of history and enjoy some feminist musings on justifiable murder and revolution, then this may be the show for you. Chop chop and catch it before it’s finished!

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