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The drop of a blade interrupts a cacophonous crowd scene. Then the lights go up on Olympe de Gouges (Anna DiGiovanni), staring wide-eyed at the guillotine: “That’s not the way to start a comedy. With an execution? That’s just basic dramatic writing.” As a playwright and politically engaged intellectual soon to be caught up in the Reign of Terror, de Gouges knows of what she speaks.
It’s not the revolution she was hoping for. De Gouges was aligned with the Girondists during the French Revolution. But now the Montagnards are dominant and they were quick to execute royalists and former allies alike. In her study, as she is struggling with both the genre and subject matter of her next play, she receives three guests, each making requests of her writing talent: Marianne Angelle (Arika Thames) a revolutionary from Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) and an old friend, wants a pamphlet condemning slavery and colonialism; Charlotte Corday (Danielle Gallo), a fellow Girondist from a minor noble family and the soon-to-be assassin of Jean-Paul Marat, wants something brilliant to say when she plunges a knife into the author whose words have inspired the current bloodshed; and Marie Antoinette (Fabiolla Da Silva) the deposed queen who knows that sooner or later, she is to be executed, wants a play that presents her as a full human.
Angelle is a fictitious character, a composite of a number of Black women who participated in both the French and Haitian Revolutions, so playwright Lauren Gunderson is free to leave us in suspense about her fate, but the other three historical figures, who likely never met in De Gouges’ study, all met their end in 1783 by means of the era’s new technological marvel, “Madame Guillotine.” When de Gouges was executed, she left behind an unfinished play, France Preserved or the Tyrant Dethroned—the same one she is writing during the play—in which the main characters were Antoinette and herself.
Gunderson uses de Gouges to voice her thoughts on the craft of playwriting. Whatever her political convictions (de Gouges is jeered when she presents her Declaration on the Rights of Women and of the Female Citizen to the General Assembly) the artist still struggles with how to tell a story of political import while staying true to her artistic vision. Angelle, meanwhile, questions the use of art that doesn’t serve the revolution’s immediate needs. The debate between the two friends becomes increasingly heated as the threat of death becomes increasingly real. And Angelle starkly reminds everyone that the First French Republic still has colonial holdings. Costume designer Allison Samantha Johnson grounds these characters by incorporating earth tones in their clothing, even as she dresses Corday in the red, white, and blue of the French tricolor, and Antoinette in pink.
I previously saw a production of The Revolutionists in 2017 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it was staged as a broad comedy. In this production, director Jessica Lefkow (who just acted in Avant Bard’s production of Ada and the Engine, another Gunderson play) has taken a darker approach. There’s still laughter, but four-and-a-half years later, it’s impossible not to notice that Atlas Performing Arts Center is only a mile-and-a-half from the Capitol. If any of us then held the notion that political violence only happens in other countries, or could be discussed in purely abstract terms, we have been disabused of that notion, and Lefkow is working in that reality. Scenic designer Matthew J. Keenan has designed the stage with death on both ends: The guillotine sits on one platform, Marat’s bathtub sits on the other, and de Gouges’ workspace is at the center.
Corday may not have the rhetorical or analytical skills of de Gouges, or the political insights of the others: Her repeated motive for killing Marat is “because he’s awful!” Gallo does not play her as goofy, as others have, but with a rage and resoluteness. She believes that taking the life of Marat, whom she regards as France’s leading proponent for the Reign of Terror will save more lives, and is thus a patriotic act worth being executed for. Corday failed; Marat became a martyr, and the assassination was immortalized in paint by Jacques-Louis David, and on stage in Peter Weiss‘ Marat/Sade. The Terror continued until Maximillian Robespierre was ousted the following year.
Gunderson’s Marie Antoinette is more complex than most dramatizations. The cluelessness regarding her own privilege and how it functions at the expense of others is familiar, but she is astute as to the workings of power, both as someone who is close to it, and someone who has been used by it. She is both trophy and broodmare for a now beheaded king, and now the subject of pornographic pamphlets. Gunderson illustrates Antoinette’s dissociation in part by having her shift, often mid-sentence, from the pronoun I to the royal we to speaking of herself in the third person. In Da Silva’s performance, the queen may enjoy being pampered, but it’s a coping mechanism for depression (two of her four children had already died by the time the play takes place) that makes her a riveting and indeed empathetic performance.
The Revolutionists is certainly not the play de Gouges intended to complete. Instead, Gunderson has built a bridge between de Gouges’ time and ours, her thought and ours.
The Revolutionists, by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Jessica Lefkow is presented by Prologue Theatre and runs at Atlas Performing Arts Center to May 22. $20–$35. prologuetheatre.org.