Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre
by Suzi Steffen
Let’s think about the French Revolution for a hot minute. What happened?
Most of us have vague memories from history class, the movies, a book or two. Some poor women got mad because of the price of bread and walked to a government prison to free the prisoners, and then a bunch of men captured the king and queen and killed them, and basically there was a lot of death, especially of men, and women knitting or something while the men were killed, right? And the aristocrats like Lafayette were unfairly persecuted and heroic, right? Then, Napoleon.
But … what happened to all of those angry women with no bread, and what happened to the queen, who was likely much less a “conspirator” than a woman who was forced into a marriage and who was trying to protect her children? Of course, most of us in the U.S. don’t even know what happened during our own revolution, though Hamilton has changed that for many fans. Theater’s good for that: It tells a story, and stories help us remember things (that knitting detail is made up, from a story, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities).
In Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, playing at the Oregon Contemporary Theatre [http://www.octheatre.org/] through Oct. 8, we learn more about several women involved in the history of France during the Revolution and the Terror. This is the third play of Gunderson’s that the OCT has staged during the last three years, the other two being I and You in the 2013-2014 season and The Silent Sky last year.
Thought The Revolutionists is not as strong as last year’s The Silent Sky, it’s a clever, funny, passionate and important piece about what happened to several women of the time – and it’s a reminder of how very, very little we know.
This play is cerebral and mannered, toying with the fact that playwright Olympe de Gouges (Erica Towe) is the main character, that she is stressed about writing a play, that she needs characters – you know, just like Gunderson.
Characters appear: Marianne Angelle (Janelle Rae Davis), a woman from a place then known as Saint Domingue, fighting for Haitian independence; Charlotte Corday (Hailey Henderson), young and directly focused on murdering the journalist and radical Jean-Paul Marat; and finally, thrillingly, wonderfully, the doomed queen, Marie Antoinette (Inga Wilson).
Gunderson tosses the four together in Geno Franco’s spare set, which references a Paris whose architecture is lightly crumbling. At first, the women make an awkward grouping as they bounce around the playwright’s massive table, occasionally pouring a glass of bourbon or sitting, briefly, and declaiming something. Director Elizabeth Helman does her level best, given the
Part of the problem is that de Gouges in this play is rather unpleasant. She’s vacillating and pusillanimous, darting out to write a little and then back into her paper nest when trouble comes to the door. Yet the real Olympe de Gouges agitated against slavery starting in the 1780s (before the Revolution), was highly political and, as she does in the play, presented her Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen before the National Assembly.
Gunderson wants us to see the woman of action (Angelle, and arguably Corday, who seems more deranged than, say, feminist) and the woman who wields her femininity like a shield (Marie Antoinette) as stronger, made of more steel, than any playwright. Fine, OK. Playwrights are weak but they have their words; other people take action – until, inevitably, the Revolution overtakes words as well. Corday and the queen are both treated shamefully by the angry maw of state-sponsored violence, and that is accurate; that’s what happened to thousands during the time of the Terror.
What about Marianne? The Revolutionists gives her a backstory – a good one – and a strong narrative arc. She’s a character who’s fascinating and sympathetic, and (in real life) the Haitian independence movement was an inspiration to colonized and enslaved people everywhere. Davis is excellent in the role, understated and moving, the center of calm in a chaotic swirl.
Then the play drops her, ungracefully and foolishly, to say what those of us who know French history suspected from her name: Unlike Charlotte Corday and Marie Antoinette, Marianne is fiction. Yes, Gunderson created a Black character who would teach Olympe de Gouges how to be brave, and then abruptly ended her story to refocus on the playwright. That’s more than a little bit awkward.
For much of its two acts, The Revolutionists is painfully funny, especially when Wilson is on stage to highlight her character’s use of ornament and charm as obfuscation, a strategy that has long served some women well and that other women – say, intellectuals like de Gouges – find not only infuriating but also harmful. One of the joys of the play is watching Olympe gradually understand that the forces shaping Marie Antoinette’s life are similar to the ones exerting pressure on the playwright. That, however, is her undoing. The currents of the times are against women’s solidarity.
Should you see the play? I think so. So many lines are worthy of quotation and sadly applicable to 2016 because history plays exist not just to teach us about their characters but also to illuminate memory and the construction of power. The Revolutionists does all of that.
If, after you see it, you’re moved to read Michel-Ralph Trouillot’s marvelous Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History [https://www.amazon.com/Silencing-Past-Power-Production-History/dp/0807043117], which is about the Haitian revolution and how the West dealt with it, so much the better.
The Revolutionists runs Th-Sun through Oct. 2 and Th-Sat through Oct. 8. Tickets are $15-$31; students with a current ID are always $15 (except opening night). Call 541-465-1506 or go to octheatre.org.