Late in the Palo Alto Players’ succulent production of Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists,” the author Olympe de Gouges engages in a debate with Black revolutionary Marianne Angelle, a fictional composite of a free woman. There is a question Marianne poses to Olympe – when it’s time to stand up and fight, will she sit down and write? Is Olympe a person who has the gumption and courage to tell a story that could get her killed for the sake of a lasting legacy?
Marianne has serious doubts that Olympe will let her fiction tell her truth.
“I’m waiting for you to realize that you can’t write the world if you’re not in it!,” thunders Marianne, seething with rage. “You can’t change it if you can’t see it! And you can’t be a hero if you’re too scared to show up. Or is this a drama you’ll never finish?”
Olympe bristles at the insinuation, but Marianne is right. Time and again, Black women such as Marianne, whose simple pamphlet sparked a declaration, are laced with parsley and fed raw to the lions, while Olympe has the luxury of simply burning the words down if they’re too inconvenient. But this isn’t a game, and Marianne isn’t finished using her daggers.
“You are allowed the privilege of telling stories, of naming yourself, but here you tremble, afraid of your own power. Maybe that’s why your writing doesn’t mean anything.”
There are so many moments such as these that fill the radiant narrative set during France’s brutal Reign of Terror in the early 1790s, forcing the audience into some uncomfortable explorations. Is theatre really just for rich people? Do we want stories that place us in a cool state of complacency as we saunter back to the safety of our habitat? Rather, should theatre make us angry, uncomfortable even, as it forces us to examine our roles and responsibilities as citizens?
While the play is loaded with darts, there’s another level to the piece – it’s quite funny, a highly stylized production loaded with metaphoric touches throughout.
Gunderson’s drama is filled with ardent dialogue that’s anachronistic, appealing to modern sensibilities using the French Revolution of the late 18th century as the venue to explore critical ideas. The words are mostly snappy, urgent and loaded with wry criticism of theatre itself. Yes, the point of meta theatre is to be weird and theatre folk love to pat themselves on the back. But there are no games in the way a story is built – ideas can be sparks that transform into raging fires. There is often peril created from the ingenuity of a woman’s incandescent words.
Director Tessa Corrie beautifully balances the play’s many levels, crafting moments that are loaded with hilarity, yet finding plenty of brio that shoots into some vicious territory. She stewards a strong core of performers who can reach the heights of the drama, led by a smart, passionate turn by Gabriella Goldstein as Olympe. Kimberly Ridgeway’s Marianne is every bit Goldstein’s equal, both performers besting each other at every turn, especially in the tense second act when we learn just how deadly it is for a woman who simply speaks.
Katherine Hamilton as Charlotte Corday was tasked with carrying a heavy emotional burden, which we see as she pays the ultimate price for her killing of journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat. And finally, Olga Molina’s Marie Antoinette is a scene stealer from the jump, prancing around in a purposely horrendous wig, her radiant smile taking root in her superfluous headspace. It is Molina’s hilarity and heart that sets up Marie’s barbaric expiration with alluring, devastating flair.
The complexity of the play’s ideas is matched by the terrific costumes from Lisa Claybaugh. Scott Ludwig’s scenic design is heavyweight caliber, with some heartbreaking sound from Jeff Graton and slick lighting from Edward Hunter, the harmonious work at its peak when multiple characters reach their demise.
There is such sad poetry to these women sacrificing just for a voice, which makes the humor pop. They yearn for agency, an opportunity to achieve a lasting legacy. What an apt metaphor. Theatre has not always made rapid shifts out of a monolithic existence, putting outsiders in a position to force their way into the fold. These four women of robust strength are symbols of a much larger mission.
In the world they live in, surrounded by nothing but plain white books all over the shelves, they must bring forth the splashes of color on those covers, borne of their authenticity, their truth, and their stories.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Palo Alto Players presents “The Revolutionists”
Written by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Tessa Corrie
The Word: A funny and poignant narrative that covers many issues – theatre and all its idiosyncrasies and the fight for strong women to pursue their lasting legacy, set against the backdrop of France’s Reign of Terror.
Running Time – Two hours with a 15-minute intermission
Through Nov. 21
On demand – Nov. 18 – 21
ID and proof of vaccination required
The Lucie Stern Community Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Tickets range from $27 – $57
For tickets, call (650) 329-0891 or visit https://paplayers.org/