What dictates the machinations of change and progress? Is it fear that churns into action; indefatigable ethos that never relents, heedless to danger or repercussions; or the unwitting resilience of a simple pluckiness borne of a blindly resolute spirit and an uncompromising, self-possessed character? Who is responsible for witnessing and documenting the machinations of change, and does serving as a composer or transcriber of the change and upheaval that defines history afford a sort of immortality? Do our stories make history, or does history make our stories?
Laura Gunderson’s excoriatingly sardonic and poignantly prescient play The Revolutionists explores and explodes these questions within the pressing context of women’s roles and, treatment, and placement in time of revolution (and how treatment in crisis direly reflects the status of and regard for women in general). Set during the peak tumult of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Revolutionists examines the serendipitous collision of four women who are uniquely and inextricably imbricated in the unraveling fabric of the volatile political and social scene. Excitable playwright Olympe de Gouges, who is a hot commodity to disenfranchised women as Paris’ alleged “only feminist writer,” is abruptly approached all at once by her acquaintance Marianne Angelle; a wildly bilious, knife-wielding stranger, Charlotte Corday; and a remarkably casual Marie Antoinette (yes, THE Marie Antoinette). The three women storm Olympe’s home with varying degrees of urgency with the same demand—write their stories; make their words electric and eternal; reconfigure their legacies with words that construe them in a far more generous light. All four women, in uniquely intimate ways, are rattled to the core by the upheaval, violence, and abuses that stem from the bloodshed and chaos of the revolution, and all are intrinsically unified by the craven need to be heard as women (and to truly exemplify the Revolution’s mantra of egalite).
Such a show, stupendously adapted by an all-female cast and crew at Pittsburgh’s esteemed City Theatre, depends on a dedicated cast to ensure that the emotionality and message of the piece is not occluded by hyperbolic or overly-exaggerated performances. Furthermore, the small size of the cast demands a balance of subtly and meticulous embellishment. The four women of Revolutionists—Shamika Cotton (Marianne Angelle); Dana Michelle Griffith (Olympe de Gouges); Moira Quigley (Charlotte Corday); and Drew Leigh Williams (Marie Antoinette)—each channel such an unconscionable amount of poise, fervor and sheer, unfettered talent, that every scene is a reminder of the uncontainable iridescence that makes theatre so awe-inspiring. Cotton is a devastating admixture of passionate rage, imbuing Marianne Angelle, a Carribean spy entangled in Revolution espionage while dealing with the anguish of separation from her husband and children, and it is her dogged resilience that serves as a backbone for the play, while still deftly allowing herself to be hauntingly vulnerable.
Taking on perhaps the most challenging role, Quigley’s turn as the bombastic, enraged political-assassin-in-the-making Charlotte Corday transforms a character that, left to the devices of someone not as immensely gifted, could easily function as a furious exclamation mark or physical comedy bit. Instead, Quigley is equal parts outrageously funny, savagely expressive, and cuttingly tender and terrified, giving Charlotte a resonance that transcends the stage. Griffith is nothing short of a ceaseless delight as Olympe de Gouges, the frenetic feminist writer with an odd penchant for musicals (the ongoing Les Mis bit hurts me, but I still found it to be perfect) and puppets, who is too consumed by fear of her own mortality (or so we are led to believe) to truly give herself and the women around her a voice. Like a wild, early-era Bernadette Peters (comparison not made for hair color at all), Griffith pounces with flawless, comedic timing, but kills with her conveyance of deeply authentic pain of a torn woman. Finally, Williams, as the infamous Marie Antoinette, is utterly ravishing. Often a symbol of indulgent opulence and negligent and incompetent monarchial rule, Williams’ performance (coupled with Gunderson’s aplomb in character development) presents an Antoinette who is lonely yet hopeful, filled with wonder yet startlingly observant, and ludicrous without ever being a gimmick—truly a fine feat for an actor. The four women together are an audience’s dream, playing off of and challenging one another in the most ecstatic ways from start to finish.
The actresses are not alone in their triumphs in The Revolutionists. The fabulous costume work of Susan Tsu is so lavishly spot on and beautiful to marvel at throughout, that the women’s wardrobes may as well be the supporting cast. Sound designer Fan Zhang and lighting designer Nicole Pearce demonstrate a level of flooring mastery that makes Revolutionists sensorially seem like multi-Tony winning production and vividly helps bring to life the expert dramaturgical work City Theatre’s Clare Drobot carefully threaded throughout the play. Moreover, their work with stage and scene designers is perhaps the most enticing production work I have witnessed in quite some time. This is all of course in complement to director Jade King Carroll, who left no one moment of The Revolutionists be idle, no one individual be under-utilized, and her fastidiousness and heart is beyond apparent.
At one point, in a particularly acute soliloquy, Williams’ Antoinette solemnly muses about the nature of revolution, and how it is problematically an objection’s full rotation on its axis, only to end up right where it started. What, she wonders, can possibly be so progressive about a revolution, then? What change can truly come? Revolutionists cleverly mirrors this idea of paradoxical revolution in its structure, but by ending seemingly with the beginning, the show challenges what it means to tell and rewrite your own story, and how that might change the brutal cyclicality of time and oppression. City’s Revolutionists pulls no punches (but, like Olympe and her associates, will leave you wanting to punch something), and its devotion to a deeply feminist message of defiance and community in the face of destruction is moving. Additionally, Revolutionists is a perfectly-paced, extraordinarily produced, and mind-blowingly well-acted play that completely overtakes an audience and revives a pure, giddy delight in sitting in a theatre.
City Theatre’s production of The Revolutionists runs now through Sunday, September 30th. Click here for tickets and more information.
Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover
Eva Phillips is celebrating her third year in Pittsburgh, third year writing for PGH in the Round, and twenty-seventh year not getting murdered (shockingly, despite all odds). She relocated to the brittle Steel City from Virginia to pursue her Masters in Literary and Cultural Studies at CMU (with a concentration in film theory and film criticism, and intersections with feminism and gender), and has spent the past few years in Pittsburgh cultivating her writing career, developing her blog https://www.tuesgayswithmorrie69.net/, raising two show cats, and widening her perspectives on the ever-evolving spectrum of theatre. She only has one Les Miserables tattoo out of her 32 tattoos, and she finds that morally reprehensible.
Categories: Archived Reviews