There’s something particularly satisfying about watching and hearing a group of characters on a stage contemplate the difficulties, consequences, and purposes of making theater for an audience. It’s even more satisfying when they do so at a specific time in history, and when historical figures come to life within a play.
The Revolutionists, at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts through November 13th, is such a play — and one with no risk of puppets.
But that’s no way to start a comedy, which in many ways The Revolutionists is. It’s humorous, self-deprecating when necessary, and conscious of itself as a piece of art and commentary. It is a play that puts women at its center, showing “the boys” and the world at large how Revolution is done and the agency that they crave over their own lives. At the same time, there is a true tension between the high, grand drama of Serious Theater™ that the characters know this drama to be and the more everyday, intimate ones that they fondly remember. The intimate ones matter because they are the stuff of human lives, and not in spite of it, but each woman is always conscious of the severity of the time she is living in. “My actions will be talked about for centuries,” shouts Charlotte Corday on her way to assassinate Jean-Paul Marat, “and I don’t want to sound like a dingbat!”
Playwright Lauren Gunderson is no stranger to featuring strong women from history and literature in her plays, from three of the four women in The Revolutionists, to Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, to Wendy (Peter Pan) and Mary Bennett (Pride & Prejudice). The Revolutionists features three fictionalized historical figures of women from the French Revolution and Reign of Terror: Olympe de Gouges, a playwright and activist who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791 and campaigned for equal rights for women and the end to the slave trade in French colonies; Charlotte Corday, a Girondin sympathizer who assassinated Montagnard radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat; and Marie Antoinette, the famously-executed queen who appears, in this play, in the hope that someone will ensure that history remembers her sympathetically. The fourth woman, Marianne Angelle, is a composite figure, inspired by the free and enslaved revolutionaries of Saint Domingue (today: Haiti).
It’s a joy to watch this cast in performance. Lauren Ashley Hayes (Olympe de Gouges), Kim Fernandez (Charlotte Corday), Vivien Cohen (Marie Antoinette), and Noelle Klyce (Marianne Angelle) bring a wealth of creative experience and awards to their portrayals of these four characters, and it shows. Each of them add complexity and humanity to Gunderson’s already three-dimensional characters. Olympe seems, at the opening, very self-centered if you don’t already know her or the significance of her work, but Hayes plays her with progressively more sympathy as the play goes on. Olympe is an Artist who is very interested in being an Artist and all of the trappings that come with it. It takes the arrival of Marianne, Charlotte, and Marie to push her from abstraction to action, from preserving herself to preserving the stories that will be lost if she isn’t willing to fight for them.
Charlotte is, from her first entrance, taking no prisoners. Both historically and in Gunderson’s drama she’s bold, driven, and sometimes rash. For her, revolution is action led by ideas, but she does not feed on its radical status. When it becomes so radical that it begins to consume itself, her first impulse is to strike off its head. As if she weren’t already compelling, Fernandez’s portrayal of her turns her into the kind of character that makes you think, “I’d like to watch a play about her!”
Marie begins her quest for a more sympathetic portrayal poorly, in her classic “Let them eat cake,” persona that was the extent of so many people’s memories about her from history class. Cohen shows great relish in leaning into the role, slowly opening the audience up to the sympathy that Marie wants so badly. By the time she is led to the guillotine, she has grown very much and we’re sorry to see her go.
Marianne is perhaps the most enigmatic of the four women — predictably, since she’s the only one not based on one specific historical woman. It’s easy to wonder at times whether the character is a real person or an allegory for Revolution. In the opening scenes her fiery vision and idealism sound very much like the Revolution that Olympe has imagined. “Revolution does need a woman’s touch,” she counters to Marie’s suggestion that it be tempered with ribbons, “but that is not a soft thing, Citizen Cake!” As the play progresses, we can see that Marianne has always known that Revolution is more complex than it seems. Right morals and just causes make for wonderful inspiration, but they are not where Revolution begins and ends. Klyce offers a spellbinding portrayal of Marianne in all of her contradictions. She indulges both the human and the allegorical possibilities of this character, going from one to the other and back again with a gesture, or a single turn of phrase. Her voice elevates the character to something really special — all four women have excellent voices, but Klyce calling for revolution made me want to leap to my feet.
The Revolutionists is a play that allows women to speak to each other in the fullness of their own actions and ideas. Where it could have played everything completely straight, it insists on laughter. Where it could preach and make stump speeches, it finds common ground. Where it could ask its viewers to look on its characters and events with a color-blind eye, it refuses. Marie Antoinette and Marianne Angelle find that they can connect to each other as spouses who have lost the people they love, even as they struggle to comprehend things that the other takes for granted: ribbons, injustice, palaces, and whole miniature ships nested in wigs. Gunderson describes the play as a “grand and dream-tweaked comedy. . . about violence and legacy, art and activism, feminism and terrorism, compatriots and chosen sisters, and how we actually go about changing the world.” How we actually go about changing the world is probably the most important idea that all four women confront over the course of the play, and each has to find her own way to do it.
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave
F Nov 11th, 7:30 p.m.
Sa + Su Nov 12th and 13th, 2 p.m.
Waiting list only