Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Marseillaise goes agitprop

Lauren Gunderson's quirky The Revolutionists is a play trying very hard not to be the play it is: a didactic political tract sternly teaching the audience its feminist lessons.  Everyman Theatre is currently giving the recent play a dazzling East Coast premiere, with florid costumes, brilliant special effects (that guillotine!), and Edith Piaf singing us into our seats to the strains of the Marseillaise.  But despite the many efforts at humor and the energetic performances by a wired cast, the play is a stern warning that we have unjustly forgotten the women at the center of history's big events.  And that we must atone for this forgetting.

The play brings together four women who lived at the time of the French Revolution: Queen Marie-Antoinette (Beth Hylton); Charlotte Corday, the assassin of revolutionary leader Marat (Emily Kester); Marianne Angelle, a Caribbean anti-slavery activist ( Dawn Ursula); and the playwright Olympe de Gouges (Megan Anderson).  These four historical women never met in real life.  Gunderson's strategy is to gather them all into De Gouges's study as they ask the playwright's assistance in various literary projects of their own.  The cast members deliver fine performances, with Hylton and Kester giving sympathetic treatment to two controversial characters whom textbooks and films have long reduced to caricatures.   Casey Stange's energetic direction moves the cast quickly through the more languorous stretches of dialogue and very effectively incorporates brassy sound and sight effects to recreate the revolutionary atmosphere of the period and the play's action.

Despite some humorous lines and many absurdist twists in plot and the play's internal timeline, the play can never shake its moralizing purpose.  We are repeatedly reminded that women did important things in past and that history has unfairly forgotten them.  It's all true but the repetitive lesson grows thin before the end of the first act.  In the second act, Olympe de Gouge's all too serious musings on the vocation of a woman playwright have the solemnity of a sermon for an obligatory catechism class.  Even the attempt to unmask misogyny gets tangled up in its own misogyny.  The play's Marie Antoinette is a reprise of the old misogynist caricature of her: a greedy, callous numskull who cares only for her jewelry and cosmetic appearance.  This is one area where the script could use a revisionist tune-up.

One of the real injustices facing the theater at the moment (and certainly in its past) is the small number of women playwrights whose works enter into full production.  Everyamn's first-rate production of Gunderson's drama is part of its admirable effort to rectify this gender balance.  Especially ambitious is Everyman's spring season, where it will offer staged readings of five plays by contemporary women playwrights.  

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