Lauren Gunderson has made a name for herself—and became the nation’s most produced living playwright in each of two recent years—with a series of works that include wordy and funny, feminist reexaminations of the lives of great women of science like Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, and Émilie du Châtelet. She has also turned her gaze on modern politics with plays like “The Taming” and “Natural Shocks.”
…an impeccable production…superlative staging …
In “The Revolutionists,” which hit the stage amid the political tumult of 2017, she does both. Gunderson examines the dangers of extremism and the duty of artists and everyday citizens in times of chaos through the lens of four women of the French Revolution: playwright Olympe De Gouge, Haitian freedom fighter Marianne Angelle, former queen Marie Antoinette, and assassin Charlotte Corday.
The four come together for a series of imagined conversations in de Gouge’s Paris studio as the Revolution begins to turn into the Terror. She and Angelle are confronted by a frantic Corday, who is hours away from stabbing the radical journalist, Jean-Paul Marat, in his bathtub. She wants de Gouge to write her some last words so the world will know she acted out of cool political calculation, not womanly irrationality. The ex-queen later arrives, and the three others have their view of her as a monster transformed into one of sympathy, if not pity.
“The Revolutionists” is best when these four smart women are sparring and conspiring. The original duo’s efforts to assist Corday drive most of the first act at an effective pace. Beyond that, though, the narrative locomotion is somewhat lacking. In her efforts to avoid being too expository, Gunderson skimps on the particulars. Corday’s motivation to become an assassin is dealt with too quickly, and the women are later also too quick to give Marie their forgiveness and friendship.
Prologue Theatre rises above these rough spots in the text with an impeccable production. The cast works together seamlessly, creating an intimacy that is immediately evident. A traverse theater, with audience members seated opposite along two sides, can be stifling, but scenic designer Matthew J. Keegan makes clever use of it, placing a guillotine and a doorway on mirroring platforms in the “end zones” of the playing area. The device neatly frames the main action at center stage, and also highlights the detachment each woman feels when she leaves the company of the rest.
As Olympe, Anna DiGiovanni is the passionate core of the unlikely quartet, and plays the character with a wide range of passion, insecurity, and sensitivity. The role of Marianne requires Arika Thames to be the moral force of the group, keeping Olympe’s focus on what matters most and reminding the others what is at stake. She does this with an understated performance that brings out the anger and determination in Marianne.
Danielle Gallo broadens Charlotte beyond what Gunderson has offered, making a mad dash from fury to doubt to resolve, and finally, to acceptance. Hers is the most physically-realized performance, a truly kinetic interpretation of the role. Fabiolla Da Silva adroitly manages her careful portrayal of Marie, balancing between the somewhat silly and out-of-touch, ex-queen Gunderson first introduces, and the more serious and introspective Marie of the second act.
Like all of Gunderson’s plays, “The Revolutionists” is original, literate, and challenging—and also quite funny. Director Jessica Lefkow has created a superlative staging of the show that overcomes the weak points in the script and that deserves to be seen.
“The Revolutionists” runs through May 22, 2022, presented by The Prologue Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. Click here for tickets and information. NOTE: All patrons must wear masks and show proof of vaccination in order to attend a performance.