Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, and Marianne Angelle meet in the salon of celebrated feminist writer Olympe de Gouges, each of them wanting some piece of writing that will change, or perhaps, end their lives. This is the story behind Lauren Gunderson’s original and bold new play, The Revolutionists, given an all-too relevant production by the talented minds of Shrewd Productions, led by the incredibly skilled hand of Rudy Ramirez. Following the final days of several of the French Revolution’s strongest women, we see how their fights and struggles are far too similar to the ones women are still fighting today.
One of the smartest moves Lauren Gunderson makes in The Revolutionists is to take these famous historical women, and present them with all of their insecurities, foibles, doubts and emotions. She turns them from figureheads of the revolution, into, simply, women. These people were no different than you and I, and yet, they had the resolve to change the world. As we live in a world today where smart, powerful women are often chastised or ridiculed, if for no other reason than being female, it’s inspiring to see these strong women fighting the fight, despite knowing, in many cases, it will mean a meeting with Madame Guillotine.
Taking on the multi-dimensional qualities of these women is no small feet, so these four performers have a lot on their shoulders. Luckily, the four women chosen bring in a combination of charisma, comedic timing, and emotional honesty that truly helps to breathe life into these historical figures. Each of these famous women, in their own way, did their part to define the revolution, and the quadriptych these actors create is a fine piece to behold.
At the heart of the piece is the friendship between playwright Olympe De Gouges, one of the only feminist writers in Revolutionary-era France, and Marianne Angelle, one of the era’s most famous Haitian freedom fighters. Having lived through a slave rebellion on a foreign shore, Angelle is a character who has gone through Hell, and Valoneecia Tolbert plays this through a sense of sardonic guardedness. She’s a serious, tough woman, who doesn’t take guff from anyone, a trait which beats perfectly against de Gouges’ manic sarcasm. It’s be far too easy to paint Angelle as simply a hard-as-nails revolutionary, but the play smartly gives Angelle moments of real heart, which Tolbert truly makes sing.
Sarah Marie Curry’s Olympe de Gouges is a staunch feminists, a warrior for the rights of women and slaves, but she’s also a bundle of insecurities. Curry, utilizing her fantastic comedic skill, plays up Olympe’s sarcastic attitude, bringing some of the funniest moments of the piece as she bounces off the play’s bizarre cast of character. It’s obvious, however, that under all the self-deprecating humor, there’s plenty of sensitivity and doubt. Her final moments are heartbreaking, and these moments hit so hard, in no small part, because of the journey Curry takes us on, bringing us into the heart of the character with her multifaceted turn.
Making up the final pieces of this fine feminist puzzle are two actors who may not spend as much time on stage, but who make the most of each moment. Gricelda Silva has an amazing ability to elicit emotion from the smallest of movements, so it’s no surprise that when she lets loose as Charlotte Corday, her energy bursts all throughout the theatre. She’s perfectly cast as the adorable young assassin, her small stature and precocious personality hiding the maliciousness underneath it all. There’s a quirky naivete she brings to the role that fits splendidly with Corday, as, even in her final moments, she shows undeniable spunk and fire. Shannon Grounds also brings plenty of energy to her performance as Marie Antoinette, but hers is more grounded in the ditzy cluelessness of the ruined princess. In many plays, a character like this would be played exclusively as a clown, but Gunderson recognizes that Antoinette was so much more: a mother, a lover, and a grieving wife. Indeed, one of the play’s most heartbreaking moments stems from Marie finding common ground with another character, who finds herself a sudden widow, where Marie says the simple, but tear-inducing words “it’s never going to be all right…but sometimes it feels good to hear someone say it.” Grounds finds the complexity beneath Marie’s goofiness, creating, by the end, one of the play’s most endearing characters.
Despite the action of the play being several centuries removed from our own, it couldn’t be more relevant to the world today. As Olympe de Gouges stands before a gathering throng of men near the play’s midpoint, asking for equality for women, we’re reminded of the marches and meetings today fighting for those same rights, drowned out once again by the gathering mass of male ego and fragility. It’s just one of the many elements that make “The Revolutionists” such a strong feminist statement, a statement that deserves to be seen by as large an audience as possible.
Shrewd Productions’ The Revolutionists is playing at the Santa Cruz Center for Culture through June 25th. To find more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit Shrew Productions’ website at shrewdproductions.com.
Photo courtesy of Errich Petersen.