Thursday, January 23, 2020

Feminist “The Revolutionists” at Artswest

Sunam Ellis and Dedra Woods in The Revolutionists (John McLellan)

The Revolutionists
Through February 9, 2020

ArtsWest is presenting Lauren Gunderson’s play, The Revolutionists. We’re in 1793 and France is in complete turmoil! The Revolution has turned into a free-for-all of executions (by guillotine, of course) of royalty and those who support them. The Jacobins are in power and the Girondins are against them. “People power” is generally what the populace wants, but how to get there is an open question.

Journalist Jean-Paul Marat has stirred up the populace with his rhetoric. Charlotte Corday (Hannah Mootz) decides he is an integral part of the power structure and if he dies then those fomenting the violence might significantly weaken. She determines to gain entry to his bath by pretense and to knife him there.

Olympe de Gouges (Sunam Ellis) is a playwright and activist who championed Haitians fighting for freedom from the colonialism of France. She wrote plays on the slave trade, divorce, marriage, debtors' prisons, children's rights, and government work schemes for the unemployed. As a playwright, she often was in the vanguard, writing political works on contemporary controversies.
Gouges wrote her famous Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen shortly after the French Constitution of 1791 was ratified by King Louis XVI, and dedicated it to his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette (Jonelle Jordan). But Louis has been executed and Marie comes looking for Gouges. Marie is fairly certain that she will be carted off to the guillotine, but she is hoping that Gouges might write Marie’s story so that Marie can go down in history looking better than the current press about her.

Marianne Angelle (Dedra Woods), a fictional character of Gunderson’s, represents many Haitian people. She arrives to ask Gouges to write more pamphlets like those Gouges wrote in 1788 in support of the rebel Haitians. Also, she represents “Marianne,” a symbol of the French rebellion and support of democracy as a sort of “goddess of the Revolution.”

Would-be assassin Corday arrives demanding a “last line” from Gouges so she can make a significant statement before she dies. These feisty women try to stand up for feminism at a moment when both the monarchists and the revolutionaries had declined to include women as full “people” and have declared women’s status as second class. The four women bond over friendship, writing, words, and womanhood. Over all their heads is literally the guillotine. In the midst of womanpower and bonding, all is death and the defeat of political acceptance for women.

Gunderson’s dialogue is current and slang-filled and also clearly from a 21st Century perspective on women, what their rights and responsibilities should be, and how they felt about their circumstances. Director Kelly Kitchens plays up the comedy. Gunderson’s play turns toward drama, though, in an uneven and difficult maneuver. After a lot of comedy, the play turns somber.

All three of the historical women die by the end. Angelle escapes that fate, but her husband back in Haiti is not so fortunate.

The simple platform staging with a ribboned background is a bit too simple for this production. There is no picture of a guillotine, only a set of light changes and a sound cue. The guillotine is a potent symbol that should hover somewhere over everything these women do or say. It’s missed here.

There is much to chew on in the play. Gunderson never puts less than a full-meal-deal in each of her plays. What is usually most important is that she celebrates women who are forgotten or betrayed by those who twist their stories to their own ends. The only woman you probably remember when thinking about the French Revolution might be Madame DeFarge – or Marie Antoinette supposedly saying, “Let them eat cake.” Gunderson sets some of that record clear.

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