“So a writer, a soon-to-be assassin, an activist and a deposed queen walk into a play. …” That’s the premise of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a cheeky blast of historical fiction onstage at Artists Rep. Essentially an Avengers for fans of iconic women who lived during France’s Reign of Terror, it unites three legends and an intriguing composite character for a battle royale of words.
Artists Rep has done everything possible to make The Revolutionists a success. The production has a talented director (Lava Alapai), a wickedly charismatic star (Jamie M. Rea) and a scenic designer (Megan Wilkerson) whose visual flourishes are as clever as Gunderson’s best ideas. Yet there is no transcending the fact that the script is a chaotic rush of cheap jokes and confused messaging—a revolution that turns into pure pandemonium.
The Revolutionists begins in 1793 with the famed feminist writer Olympe de Gouges (Rea) frantically searching for an idea for her next project. Just her luck, inspiration arrives on her doorstep in the form of Marie Antoinette (Amy Newman), Charlotte Corday (Joellen Sweeney) and Marianne Angelle (Ayanna Berkshire), who is a free woman from the Caribbean and a crusader against slavery (and who Gunderson based on revolutionaries from what is now Haiti).
It’s fascinating to watch these disparate women clash and connect. Marianne, for instance, is appalled by the pampered Marie, but the two develop a tender friendship after learning that they have experienced similar losses (a revelation that makes a few cracks in the two major barriers, class and race, that divide them). And everyone is awed by Charlotte’s unshakable determination to slay the prolific anti-monarchist politician and journalist Jean-Paul Marat, who she deems “the worst.”
The set is even more intriguing. The Revolutionists features several models of buildings that the characters occasionally use as benches. It’s a cunning visual metaphor, a signal that although these women are gone, they were giants in a misogynistic world too small to be worthy of them (Olympe de Gouges was beheaded after writing a pamphlet entitled Declaration of the Rights of Women and the [Female] Citizen).
Unfortunately, The Revolutionists isn’t worthy of them, either. The play is so desperate to be funny that it runs its jokes into the ground, doubling down on anachronisms (Marie says “badass” and Charlotte says “motherfuckers”) that go from being subversive to being irritating with alarming speed. Even more unwelcome are the snide, nonstop digs at Les Misérables, which are almost as wearying as Russell Crowe’s singing in the film adaptation of that musical.
There’s also something baffling about the way that The Revolutionists explores art’s value, or lack thereof. When Marianne berates Olympe for not being able to “feel anything unless it’s staged,” she has a point. Yet Gunderson abruptly shifts gears by having Marianne inexplicably praise Olympe’s devotion to her craft in a scene that seems jarringly out of place. It’s almost as if Gunderson is trying to talk herself out of doubting the validity of her own work.
The best Gunderson play I’ve seen is I and You, which was produced at Artists Rep last year and largely revolves around two teenagers collaborating on a school project in a bedroom. It’s a work that’s remarkable precisely because it isn’t afraid to be unremarkable—it simply invites us to listen while its characters chat.
I and You, in other words, is the opposite of The Revolutionists, which is so desperate to make an impact that it exhausts you. In the play, Olympe creates because she believes that art can affect profound change. I think that she’s right, but I also think that a play’s power to influence depends on a playwright’s ability to articulate a coherent vision. That’s where The Revolutionists fails. It has fighting spirit, but it never fully mobilizes or even figures out which battlefield it wants to be on.
- The Revolutionists continues through May 26 on the Alder Stage at Artists Rep. Ticket and schedule information here.
- It’s the final production on the Alder Stage before it’s demolished to make way for a high-rise project. Artists Rep is raising money to remodel the remaining part of its property, which will include two performance spaces. The company’s 2019-20 season will be presented on various other stages around the city.