Playwright Lauren Gunderson has been interested in bringing to life historical women who made contributions that were either forgotten or marginalized. Her play, Silent Sky, which just closed at Lamb’s Players Theatre, told the story of three women astronomers whose discoveries around the turn of the 20th Century were minimalized. Her play, Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, which ran at New Village Arts about a year ago, portrayed a celebrated mathematician and physicist in the Enlightenment era whose work was largely forgotten.
In The Revolutionists, newly opened at Moxie Theatre, Ms. Gunderson turns her attention to three women who lost their lives during the French Reign of Terror, along with a fictional woman who has come to France to campaign for colonial independence in Haiti. Considerably funnier than the other two plays, The Revolutionists nevertheless goes somber in the second act as it considers the value of the executed women’s lives.
The three historical women are Olympe de Gouges (Jo Anne Glover), Charlotte Corday (Samantha Ginn), and Marie Antoinette (Lisel Gorell-Getz). Gouges was a writer and feminist who drafted a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen during the late 18th Century (the play is set in 1793; by contrast, the U. S. Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments would not appear until 1848). Corday was a moderate by French Revolution standards, and she assassinated radical leader Jean Paul Marat because he advocated violence and bloodshed as the best way to achieve the revolution’s goals. (Corday’s act was memorialized in the 1963 Peter Weiss play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, otherwise known as Marat/Sade.) Antionette, an Austrian whose family married her to the future Louis XVI at age 14, had lavish tastes and was blamed by the populace for the economic downturn that led to the revolution.
The fictional woman, Marianne Angelle (Cashae Monya) has traveled to France from its Caribbean colony to press for independence and a formal abolition of slavery (independence was declared in 1804, but slavery was not formally abolished until 1848). She has left behind a spouse who is in danger for his revolutionary activities.
Despite its time period, the play seems contemporary, and deliberately so, as highlighted by Sound Designer Rachel LeVine’s incidental music choices. Its humor is often self-referential (so meta that there’s even a joke about a joke), and features a running gag about the musical, Les Mis, which remains unnamed. The author warns the audience that the play ends badly for these characters, and the second act is devoted to these executions. Given the story, this division may be necessary, but it’s jarring nevertheless.
Director Jennifer Eve Thorn’s production is spare except for the costumes (by the estimable Jennifer Brawn Gittings), and the acting is spare as well. Some of the choices are driven by what Ms. Gunderson has chosen to emphasize about each character, but some of it may be actor choices Ms. Glover also played the lead in the New Village Arts production of Emelie, and she brings a similar sense of detachment to her portrayal of the firebrand De Gorgues. Ms. Ginn struggles with the ambivalence of the underwritten Corday, but she impresses in Corday’s Act 2 death scene. Ms. Gorell-Getz does an exquisite imitation of an exploding cream puff, and Ms. Monya’s character is the disrupter, a role of which the actress takes full advantage.
Moxie’s next season is set to the theme, “Why We Persist.” That theme could have taken its cue from The Revolutionists.