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Two decades into the 21st century, a play about women wanting their stories told truthfully and to be treated with equality should by now be about the past. But, although Lauren Gunderson's The Revolutionists follows four women caught up in the horrors of the French Revolution, line after line of her 2016 comedy-drama hit home with startling immediacy at the opening night of Raleigh Little Theatre's engaging production. That's because the previous day's dramatic testimonies at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings made it plain that much remains the same as in 1793 concerning women's rights.
Gunderson's intriguing premise is an imagined meeting and subsequent bonding among four historical figures in 1793. Activist playwright Olympe de Gouges is visited by Marianne Angelle, a Haitian woman come to Paris to protest France's enslavement of her country's people. She wants Olympe to write pamphlets for distribution among the growing crowds protesting the monarchy's harsh grip. Soon afterwards, another visitor is Charlotte Corday, on her way to murder Jean-Paul Marat for his part in hundreds of executions. She wants Olympe to write a great line for her last words before her inevitable execution. Olympe's last visitor is Marie Antoinette, formerly queen but now just citizen after King Louis XVI's beheading. She wants Olympe to write a play telling her side of being thrust unwillingly into royalty.
Because Gunderson gives each character comic elements (Olympe is intensely theatrical; Marianne throws out sarcastic asides; Charlotte is maniacally matter-of-fact; Marie floats in her own self-absorbed little world), most of the first act elicits a lot of laughs. Many of those come from dialogue reflecting current expressions ("cool," "high five," "intel") and from contemporary body language and gestures. But the playwright is stealthily setting up sympathies for all the characters as they reveal dreams, fears, and hopes, leading to moving scenes in the second act as the guillotine looms for their brave actions.
Gunderson frames the play with all manner of jokes about theatre, playwriting, and audiences, along with layers of historical facts and stirring declarations of what women have and still are dealing with from dominating authorities and cultural assumptions. Her intentions are serious and her insights are creatively communicated. Sometimes the dialogue becomes too much like textbook passages and scenes often slow down with the weight of repeated themes and details. And there's too much reliance on the shock value of profanity for an easy laugh. Nevertheless, the script makes an undeniable case for the continuing battle for women's equality.
Lu Meeks filled the stage with Olympe's impassioned zeal, the character comically flitting from one idea to another but ultimately finding the courage to face accusations as a traitor for her writings. Liz Webb's feisty Charlotte amused with her one-track focus on murderous intent and gave a gripping portrayal of Charlotte's final hours. Melanie Simmons had a field day playing Marie as a clueless airhead in the beginning, but eventually revealed her as a loving mother and a victim of circumstances. Tiffany Lewis as Marianne (the only character that is a composite representing many) conveyed appropriate skepticism and weary acceptance of reality. She also had the most moving scene in the play as Marianne learns of a life-changing family circumstance. Simmons and Lewis sometimes allowed their voices to drop too low for clarity in quiet moments, contrasted to their easily heard dialogue when speaking in anger or passion.
Director Amy White's tight direction kept the confident, well-rehearsed cast active on Joncie Sarratt's setting of period furnishings and an upper-level row of guillotines. Kaitlin Gill Rider's lighting added significantly to dramatic moments, especially those involving the guillotines, as did John Maruca's sound design, full of angry mobs and dropping blades. Vicki Olson's costumes were colorfully appropriate, although Charlotte's mobcap covered too much of Webb's face and expressions.
Despite some script deficiencies, the production is a worthy one that should appeal to anyone concerned with justice for women and, indeed, all mankind. Gunderson's clever humor and unusual structure constantly entertains while slipping in compelling commentary that will stay with you long after the play is over.
The Revolutionists continues through Sunday, October 14. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.