The Revolutionists

MARIE ANTOINETTE: ... I'm here for a rewrite.
--Lauren Gunderson, The Revolutionists, Act One

(Left to right) Adrian Egolf as Marie Antoinette, Rebecca Remaly as Olympe De Gouges, Maire Higgins as Charlotte Corday, and Jada Suzanne Dixon as Marianne Angelle
(L to R) Adrian Egolf as Marie Antoinette, Rebecca Remaly as Olympe De Gouges,
Máire Higgins as Charlotte Corday, and Jada Suzanne Dixon as Marianne Angelle
Photo: Michael Ensminger

In what is passed down to us as "recorded history," there have been many touted revolutions, each seeking a qualitative change from the status quo. Putting aside so-called "political correctness" (PC), which serves no purpose other than to destroy historical context and judge the past by present standards, we must ask: What indications of "progress" have we seen from these various revolutions along the timeline of human history? Specifically, we're looking for indications of political, economic, and human rights (including gender and racial) progress.

Classical Greece may have been a democracy for adult males, but it was a society dependent upon slavery, and women were chattel. Even in Elizabethan England, where "the Virgin Queen" ruled for nearly a half century, the laws of primogeniture remained. Many of the key players in the American Revolution, who replaced the British king, were landed aristocrats and slave owners and, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, more than half the white male population could not vote. Women didn't vote until 1920. Native Americans had to wait until 1924. And free blacks could vote, if they weren't excluded by suppression, gerrymandering, and other Jim Crow strategies.

Rebecca Remaly as Olympe De Gouges
Rebecca Remaly as Olympe De Gouges
Photo: Michael Ensminger
In this regional premiere, playwright Lauren Gunderson highlights four women—all actual historical figures—of disparate socio-economic backgrounds, in 1793, during the time of the French Revolution. In her script, Gunderson states that the play is a comedy, yet it features four deaths by guillotine. In the first scene, Olympe De Gouges (Rebecca Remaly), an activist playwright, says that the play will be about "women showing the boys how revolutions are done."

Olympe's friend, Marianne Angelle (Jada Suzanne Dixon), a free African-Carribbean and spy for San Domingue (the main site of the famous slave rebellion in Haiti), counters Olympe's delusion: "The French are fighting a revolution for freedom while running a slave colony in the West ..." The point being, intended or not, that the French Revolution was, like the American Revolution, about replacing one set of white males (nobility) with another set of white males (financial aristocracy), with the famed battle cry of "Liberty, Fraternity, Equality" applying only to this group.

Jada Suzanne Dixon as Marianne Angelle
Jada Suzanne Dixon as Marianne Angelle
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Enter Charlotte Corday (Máire Higgins), a young, driven country girl, looking for a writer to give her a punchy exit line to use after she kills Jean-Paul Marat, but after Olympe goes on about her indecision over what she is writing, Charlote expresses her exasperation: "Ohmigod is this going to be a play about a play?" We were wondering the same thing.

Enter Marie Antoinette (Adrian Egolf), who comes to ask Olympe for a rewrite (of history). Dishing off one-liners faster than you can say, "Let them eat cake," Marie quickly become the comedic relief for what is, dramatically speaking, a tragedy, despite what Gunderson claims in her extended, self-indulgent, and indecisive self-talk delivered via Olympe. In real life, Olympe De Gouges had many compelling things to say about women's rights and abolishing slavery, and does not appear to be a person who would be so indecisive regarding a dramatic through line, particularly during The Reign of Terror. In Gunderson's play (unlike history), Olympe is far better at talking about writing a play than actually writing anything, which is much like the play itself: Too much telling; too little showing. Even placing it in the Shavian realm of "the theatre of ideas," we see that The Revolutionists has no substantive B Plot, other than the guillotine itself, to bolster its dramatic arc.

Maire Higgins as Charlotte Corday
Máire Higgins as Charlotte Corday
Photo: Michael Ensminger
The one thing that the play does have going for it is four nuanced performances, under the direction of Allison Watrous, that make the most of Gunderson's less than compelling ideas on revolution and women's rights—which lack socio-economic context on the historical timeline; for example, the first article of Olympe's real-life "Declaration" states that "Woman is born free and lives equal to man."—a noble truth; but, what men are born free, other than into an illusion, given the planetary power structure? That men subjugate women does not mean they are free. The point being: Yes, the American and French Revolutions did not address the rights of women, but neither did they address the rights of men, only a class of men. That Gunderson does not clarify Olympe's position, regarding the limited notions of freedom offered by the French Revolution, imbues the playwright's stand-in with class biases.

These issues aside, Remaly dials in the archetypal French mindset of comme si, comme ça, making the inability to make up one's mind—blowing hither and thither with the latest conversation point—seem perfectly natural. Dixon's Marianne is the moral backbone of the piece, taking her friend Olympe, as well as Charlotte and Marie, with a grain of salt, as she cuts to the chase in each conversation. Higgins' Charlotte is focused, driven, and brave, willing to give her life to end the bloodshed, while inhabiting a prophetic state (with perfect cheekbones, as the script calls for). Egolf deftly tosses off zingers straight from Marie's heart—sometimes clueless, sometimes profound—but always delivered with panache.

Adrian Egolf as Marie Antoinette
Adrian Egolf as Marie Antoinette
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Meanwhile, at the beginning of the second act, two-thirds of the way through the story, Olympe declares once again that she has decided on a new form for her script, and then ironically declares, "At least drama has some structure," as she and Marie debate the name of the play and possible plots, while peppering the dialogue with inside theatre jokes that, frankly, have lost their luster over the last 75 years. And did we mention that the women speak in contemporary colloquial language, an anachronism meant to inject humor (resulting in a number of good lines), but which also has the effect of further marginalizaing any historical context. This fits perfectly with Gunderson's belief, delivered via Olympe, that—contrary to an old writer's craft axiom—"writers don't write what they know, they write what they want." In such a world, facts are an inconvenience, not unlike the position of the guillotine-happy Committee for Public Safety, as the judge, jury, and executioner during The Reign of Terror called themselves.

Gunderson finally gets some traction at the end of the play, which depicts four strong women who care for each other and for the equality of women and for their country, and who pay the ultimate price for demanding full rights. Such a strong climax really calls for a worthy beginning and middle that drives through to this point. Instead, we get worn backstage saws, discursive observations on the writing process, and circular ideas disconnected from actual events, as well as a truncated catharsis, which begins in one direction and ends in another; thus, leaving the comedy without an ending and the tragedy without a beginning, much as masculine and feminine qualities are artificially divided by sex here, rather than integrated in the individual (see Carl Jung).

In the end, it is Marianne, the African-Carribean, who drafts a universal statement, instead of Olympe, who attempted to do so in real life:

We, the free and proud women and men of Saint-Domingue, deny the unjust power of France and her agents of torture and greed. The sun of this island shines on an independent nation of liberty not property.

Such a statement still speaks today for our aspirations, regardless of our location on the gender or color spectrum. We are glad to see Gunderson arrive at this point, despite the convoluted ride.

Excellent minimalist set and faux period furniture by Tina Anderson; superb lighting effects by Katie Gruenhagen; nicely detailed costumes by Brenda King; and dramatic sound design by Ashley Campbell.

Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's presentation of The Revolutionists runs through October 8th. For tickets:

Bob Bows

  Current Reviews | Home | Webmaster