“Find the heart…not the art.” Olympe de Gouges (Mary Wakefield) needs to write a play “that’s good and important and annoyingly prescient.” In “The Revolutionists,” playwright Lauren Gunderson attempts to clarify the importance of theatre not as an art form but as a political weapon in the never-ending struggle for justice for all, leavening the seriousness with a soupçon of laughs. Olympe, an activist playwright in Paris working amidst the terror of the French Revolution, opens the play and leads the audience through a dialectic questioning the value of theatre in a time of cultural war. Olympe is soon joined by Marianne Angelle (Rachel Johnson) who questions why Olympe must write a play to express her ideas? Why not be more direct with a political pamphlet, a declaration, or at least save time with a monologue? What can theatre bring to the table of sociopolitical change?
…director Jen Katz sets a brisk pace with her excellent cast and never misses an opportunity to make a point or raise a chuckle from the audience.
Just when the entertaining dialogue between these two characters teeters on the brink of cutesy, an urgent knocking introduces Charlotte Corday. She is the infamous assassin of Jean-Paul Marat, a champion of the “third estate” (the common people of France) who supported violence against the aristocracy. Emma Wesslund’s passionate Charlotte stops the argument simply, “Plays are only for rich people and chandeliers. Is this going to be a play about theatre? Oh my god, that’s the worst!” Agreed, girl. It can be. Despite some weakness of the script’s second act, director Jen Katz sets a brisk pace with her excellent cast and never misses an opportunity to make a point or raise a chuckle from the audience.
The coup de gloire and the last of the feminist foursome to appear is Marie Antoinette (Alex Greenberg). Greenberg gives a quick master class in character development with her portrayal of the doomed queen. Precise gestures, classic posture, impeccable timing, and vocal colors are all undergirded by real emotion revealed sparingly and, thereby, all the more effectively. Greenberg sets a high bar and the rest of the cast rises to it.
Gunderson is one of the most widely produced playwrights in the U.S. Silver Spring Stage has mounted successful productions of three of her earlier works, including one live-streamed production during the pandemic. Gunderson creates terrific roles for actors and gives designers something to play with as well. Her trend of presenting historical characters in their own period but giving them contemporary-style dialogue designed to highlight current social issues is mostly successful, though sometimes she overdoes the contemporary clichés, dropping “box office gold” and “work-life balance” in this play. Act Two opens with an overly lengthy conversation between Olympe and Marie about playwriting that ends with the welcome entrance of Marianne bearing sad news of Charlotte’s impending execution. Despite her flaws, Gunderson does write pithy statements about the horrors of humanity, such as “She made them scared and they’re taking it out on the human race.”
Marianne is a fictional character, an activist who represents the oft forgotten revolution going on simultaneously with the one in Paris—the revolution against France’s enslavement of people in their Caribbean colonies. Marianne explains, “It’s the same revolution, the same rights, the same freedoms. Just applied to your slaves instead of your peasants.” Olympe asks Marianne “Do you dream of guillotines? Every night?” She replies, “No. Chains.” It can be argued that France’s adherence to its motto Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité in an effort to make Frenchness—rather than race, religion, or creed—the unifying strength of its people has been carried too far and now erases personal history and threatens the cultural identity of the country’s immigrants. Marie explains the futility of bloody revolution, “Isn’t the definition of revolution—the turning about of an object on a central axis thereby landing its journeyman in the exact same spot whereon they started?” Gunderson parallels this with the futility of murdering Marat—some tried to turn him into a martyr.
The Arts Barn’s small space demands the simple, yet dramatic set (also designed by Jen Katz), with a life-size guillotine raised against a backdrop of a suitably antique outline sketch of the streets of Paris. Lucien Reubens’ sound effectively enhances the action, including a chilling drop of the executioner’s blade. Lighting designer Steve Deming achieves a startling moment as Charlotte is executed by blacking out the light on her head, allowing her to exit in semi-darkness as a headless body. Mary Wakefield’s costumes are beautiful and specific to each character. It is a nice choice to leave the red sash off of Marianne until the final scene, giving the sense that the real revolution continues.
Running time: Approximately two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 15 & up. Occasional strong profanity and includes discussion of death and murder (by knife) and mentions of sexual activity.
“The Revolutionists” runs through July 23, 2023 presented by Silver Spring Stage at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD 20878. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $22, Students are $20 (ages 15—21). To purchase tickets, go online. Tickets may also be purchased in person at the Arts Barn box office or by contacting the Arts Barn, 301-258-6394. COVID Guidelines: Masks are highly recommended but no longer required while in the theatre and lobby.