Imagine dropping into the salon of 18th century French feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges (1748-93) during the French Revolution (1789-99). King Louis XVI (1754-93) has been dethroned and beheaded, and Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-93) (of “Let them eat cake” fame) has been imprisoned. The leader of the revolution, Jean-Paul Marat, has himself become a despot, filling the power void and threatening to behead anyone who speaks out against the new order — effectively beginning the “Reign of Terror.”
Thousands are killed because Marat considers them “enemies of the people.” There is pandemonium throughout France, and fear reigns supreme. That’s a perfect setup for a comedy, right? Well, yes, as it seems, it is. For even though Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s 2016 comedy, The Revolutionists, under the direction of Amy White, is set during the Revolution, this play serves up plenty of laughs, along with sober realizations and insights. It is a comedic drama, with beheadings.
Against this backdrop, Olympe de Gouges (played by Lu Meeks) is trying to write something powerful. Her salon has a giant rococo desk and lion’s claw chairs, a fainting couch, and three windows that double menacingly as guillotines. (This is very nice touch by scenic designer Joncie Sarratt).
Already famous for speaking out against slavery in the French colonies, de Gouges is struggling with writer’s block. She buzzes around the room, quill in hand, jotting down ideas for stories on every slip of paper she can find, first celebrating and then rejecting each new idea.
Enter Marianne Angelle (Tiffany Lewis) a rock-solid, even-tempered African-Caribbean spy who is working to convince the French to cease slavery in its colonies. “The French are fighting a revolution for freedom while running a slave colony in the West,” she exclaims.
Next, we meet Charlotte Corday (Liz Webb), a young French woman intent on ending the Reign of Terror by killing Marat in his bathtub. Although she knows that this will certainly result in her neck in the guillotine, she believes it is what she must do to save her beloved France and thousands of terrified countrymen (and women) from further bloodshed.
Finally, in comes a delightfully ditsy Marie Antoinette (Melanie Simmons). She has the innocence of a sheltered girl, an innocent, trying to understand how she lost her throne, her husband, and her children.
All Marianne, Charlotte, and Marie worry about how they will be perceived by history, and they have rightly come to Olympe the writer to help shape their reputations. As these legendary women speak, we get to reconsider them all, as well as the light that history has cast upon them. We also get to consider our own notions about equality. For if a revolution is about equality, shouldn’t it be for everyone? Indeed, during the French Revolution, the women of France were hopeful that they, too, would be included and enjoy some Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) as their society reshaped its future.
In real life, a hopeful Olympe de Gouges famously penned the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen“. For daring to ask for women to be included in the new regime, she was ridiculed, declared “hysterical,” and beheaded for treason. So, it is understandable that throughout the play, de Gouge is filled with fear of reprisals for speaking up. So are all of the women whom we meet; but they ultimately find the courage to act, even though it may lead to their heads being taken off.
The play has plenty of laughs, some brought about by the dichotomy of these women’s social status and perspectives, others by the use of colloquialisms and modern slang in an ancient setting. Charlotte Corday worries that they will cut off her long locks before they chop off her head. The Queen loves ribbons. Lots of ribbons, and she keeps offering them to people to be helpful.
But each woman makes profound statements that elevate them from a paragraph in the back of history books. To paraphrase the Queen, “Isn’t the definition of a revolution something that goes around in a circle and ends up where it started?” Yes, indeed. Will we ever learn?
We must also mention the terrific period costumes by Vicki Olson. The details are astounding, from the Queen’s frothy white wig to the writer’s bows and swags to the Caribbean revolutionist’s headwrap.
And even though the show is set in 18th century France, immediately after the overthrow of the Ancien Régime, the theme throughout is women’s empowerment, which makes it uncomfortably relevant about society today. Framed by the political drama currently riveting our own country, we are forced to scrutinize our views of women’s equality in a striking way. The trial scenes from the show were particularly poignant as we watched faceless, powerful elite act as judge, jury, and executioner over the lives of a women who dared to speak out. Yes, I am talking about the play. #MeToo.
Women’s contributions to society and in history books have been historically marginalized, and Lauren Gunderson’s play The Revolutionists: A Comedy, A Quartet, A Revolutionary Dream Fugue, A True Story sings the praises of all of the unsung women throughout history who attempted to stand up for a cause. It is littered with historical facts that left us itching to learn more about these and other historical women. It also begs the question whether we ourselves would possess the courage displayed by the main characters. There is power in the pen, and power in telling the story, but it takes facing our fears and standing up for our beliefs to become a Revolutionist.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 29th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Roy C. Dicks: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9112; and Sept. 27th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with director Amy White and actresses Melanie Simmons and Liz Webb, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://www.wunc.org/post/their-heads-revolutionists-come-raleigh; and Aug. 28th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and Entertainment preview by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/08/the-revolutionists-take-over-raleigh-little-theatre/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 30th Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2018/09/sets-costumes-acting-and-the-script-make-rlts-the-revolutionists-a-must-see-show/.)
Raleigh Little Theatre presents THE REVOLUTIONISTS at 8 p.m. Oct. 4-6, 3 p.m. Oct. 7, 8 p.m. Oct. 11-13, and 3 p.m. Oct. 14 in RLT‘s Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $25 ($21 students and seniors 62+).
BOX OFFICE: 919-821-3111 or https://raleighlittletheatre.secure.force.com/.
RLT‘S 2018-19 SEASON: https://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows-and-events/memberships/.
PRESENTER: https://raleighlittletheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/RaleighLittleTheatre, https://twitter.com/RLT1936, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raleigh_Little_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/raleighlittletheatre.
NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices are available for all shows.
NOTE 2: At 11 p.m. on Saturday, October 6th, Eyes Up Here Comedy will present a special Eyes Up Here Comedy Show — Theme: Lost My Head: Standup & Stories, on the set of The Revolutionists, hosted by comic Erin Terry and featuring Brett Williams and Rose Higgins.
NOTE 3: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe The Revolutionists’ 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7th, performance.
The Revolutionists: A Comedy, A Quartet, A Revolutionary Dream Fugue, A True Story (2016 Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park comedy): https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5692 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), https://newplayexchange.org/plays/3510/revolutionists (New Play Exchange).
The Script: https://www.dramatists.com/previews/5692.pdf (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.).
Lauren Gunderson (San Francisco, CA playwright and screenwriter): http://laurengunderson.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/LaurenMGunderson (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/LalaTellsAStory (Twitter page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Gunderson (Wikipedia).
Amy White (Raleigh, NC director and assistant professor of Theatre and Musical Theatre at William Peace University): https://www.peace.edu/profiles/amy-white/ (WPU bio) and https://www.facebook.com/amy.white.927758 (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.