The Revolutionists is the latest in a recent spate of plays produced in the Midlands that tackle hot social and political themes. Presented in the University of South Carolina’s spare, minimalistic Center for Performance Experiment, author Lauren Gunderson’s feminist take on the French Revolution unfolds during the famous historical struggle for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” — still the national motto of both France and Haiti. But what good is a revolution if it only benefits the brotherhood of men?
In the play, Olympe de Gouges (Leslie Valdez), an author and playwright whose manifesto, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, caused a stir in 1791, has become frustrated by the increasingly radical and violent direction of the ruling faction in France. Charlotte Corday (Iuliia Khamidullina) wants Olympe’s help in finding the most eloquent words to proclaim her motives, following her intended assassination of leader Jean-Paul Marat, who she feels has betrayed the once-noble ideals of the movement. Marie Antoinette (Jennifer Sanchez) arrives looking for a rewrite, maintaining that her vilification in history was simply a case of bad press. Marianne (Leslie Ivery) is an amalgam of the iconic and similarly named French symbol of freedom — think Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty — and several Haitian freedom fighters who were inspired by the historical de Gouges’s writings; she too seeks continued motivation from Olympe’s works.
Director Marybeth Gorman Craig established a fast-paced sisterly vibe during last week’s opening night. Her ensemble cast spoke anachronistically in chatty, contemporary vernacular as if they were women of today. While Gunderson’s work is primarily a play of ideas, the action unfolded as part genteel salon, part revolutionary cabal and part slumber party. Like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, all four women were aware at some level of their ultimate fates, and that they were characters in a play as it transpired.
Valdez adeptly and sympathetically captured the all-too-frail humanity of a visionary artist filled with the ardor of a lofty cause, but gradually realizing the jeopardy into which her words might plunge her. Khamidullina was a bolt of energy, simultaneously fiery and innocent as the passionate Charlotte, while Ivery represented the steadfast dedication of the common woman even in times of turmoil and danger. Sanchez, who played a darker variation of the same character in David Adjmi’s play Marie Antoinette in 2015 at Trustus Theatre, was as broadly comic and frivolous as one would expect for the character, yet the performance also allowed the audience to empathize with the woman and mother under the powdered wig and layers of skirts and petticoats.
As the four characters realized that they were more alike than different, a vision of progressive change with the active participation of women developed — yet, as one character bluntly observed, this was the Reign of Terror, not the Reign of “agree to disagree.” Indeed, the historical de Gouges was in fact charged with writing a subversive play in which she and a sympathetic Queen Marie found common ground, and The Revolutionists is in many ways a depiction of the conflicting scenes that must surely have played out in the author’s imagination.
Scenic designer Nate Terracio, a theater MFA student away from his day job as director of the Koger Center, continues to create evocative sets with minimal resources. Here, a standing writing desk and several tall bookcases overflowing with hundreds of books, papers and manuscripts were all that was needed to define Olympe’s study, while small units representing perhaps a divan and a footstool also became platforms in courtrooms and at execution sites. Meanwhile, a giant steely-gray panel loomed overhead, signifying the guillotine for which three of the four characters were destined.
As with A Bright Room Called Day, produced last year by Trustus, a key question raised in The Revolutionists concerns the duty of the artist and the intellectual in times of crisis. There are also echoes of USC’s 2017 production in the CPE of Top Girls, in which historical figures similarly debated conflicting versions of feminism. Thanks to strong work by the director and cast, the current production (presented in repertory with Waiting for Godot) successfully explores similar territory, with the added assertion that social upheaval can create positive change without bloodshed.
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