South Park Theatre Rivets with The Revolutionists

Reviewed by Dr. Tiffany Knight Raymond, PhD

Lauren Gunderson’s 2017 play The Revolutionists assembles the female Avengers of the French Revolution – and South Park Theatre casts them perfectly.

Weaving together a quartet of badass women circa 1793, Gunderson’s play is a what if and a homage rolled into one. The play’s girl power squad of contemporaries include 1.) playwright Olympe de Gouges (Amanda Weber), 2.) Haitian revolutionary Marianne Angelle (Olivia Long), 3.) Marat’s assassin Charlotte Corday (Elizabeth Glyptis), and 4.) the queen herself, Marie Antoinette (Stacey Rosleck). Angelle’s essence is real, but she’s a composite character, whereas the other three are all based on individuals.

The play is reminiscent of watching Titanic. You know the ship will go down, yet you stubbornly cling to the hope that somehow won’t be the outcome. In this case, the guillotine is the foregone story ender. In both cases, it’s the people we meet, their stories, and our desire for their stories to continue that make us hope for alternate outcomes.

Set designer Sabrina Hykes-Davis works miracles with South Park Theatre’s compact stage. Her guillotine looms large both literally and metaphorically. Hykes-Davis creates a raised platform that dominates upstage. Atop the platform is a towering guillotine. Its perpetually raised blade hovers high, nearly grazing the theatre’s rafters. These stacking elements create an ominous, persistent visual threat of the repercussions of disobedience for these four women.

Stacey Rosleck & Amanda Weber Photo credit: South Park Theatre

Instead of bookcases, props designer Alex Keplar has piles of books carelessly shoved under a period couch in Olympe’s apartment where the play takes place. It’s a visual metaphor for the value assigned to women’s stories – hidden. However, the white brocade couch they rest under is luminous, so it’s also a beacon of light foreshadowing the emergence of these stories.

Director Jeff Boles finds balance among these four stellar actresses. Marie Antoinette is immediately the least sympathetic with her “let them eat cake” reputation, which is referenced when she’s condescendingly called “Citizen Cake.” However, we immediately question our perception of her when Marie enters the room and demands from Olympe that she’s “here for a rewrite.” After all, if history was written by men, why should we assume the accuracy of Antoinette’s representation?

Lorraine Mszanski Photo credit: South Park Theatre

With strongly asserted lines, Rosleck finds Antoinette’s humanity. Yet, costumer designer Darien O’Neal’s lacy pink dress with a hoopskirt acknowledges the inherent frivolity of royalty. Like an 18th century fidget spinner, Marie nervously strokes ribbons in the colors of the French flag, but the separated colors suggest an already fractured nation.

As Olympe de Gouges, Weber is the play’s keystone. Each woman seeks her out with a writing request. Boles has Weber enunciate crisply and speak deliberately, befitting a writer. Olympe wants her unfinished play to be the “voice of revolution without hyperbole.” She knows didacticism will repel her audience, yet she is desperate for her work to incite action, and negotiating the paradox is paralyzing.

Elizabeth Glyptis vibrates with urgency as Charlotte Corday on her quest to murder Jean-Paul Marat. While Corday seeks de Gouges’ help to craft her last words, she’s also there to psych herself up for the act. Glyptis is almost prayer-like as she asks for “enough guts and cuteness to pull this off.” She’s self-aware that her gender will not only mask her intent but allow her access to commit the deed.

Olivia Long is forceful and commanding as Haitian revolutionary Marianne Angelle. She is the first woman to approach de Gouges to seek her help writing a pamphlet. None of the trio of literary requests correlate to de Gouges’ profession of playwright. As a female writer in a male-dominated world, de Gouges represents a safe haven for women seeking to have their story told, regardless of the form.

On opening night of The Revolutionists, former president Donald Trump had just been found guilty on 34 felony counts. Watching four women of the French Revolution face the guillotine, there was a sense of poetic justice floating across the centuries. Olympe declares, “Theater is democracy” as that’s where one gets to craft righteous endings, particularly for women. Yet, that night, the attempted suppression of a woman triumphed over a man in power. Seeing democracy reign within the legal system is a satisfying complement and a testimony to progress over time.

-TKR, Ph.D.

The Revolutionists runs through June 15, 2024 at South Park Theatre. Purchase tickets online here

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