Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Set during the French Revolution, the play seizes on the idea that the budding ideas of liberation and enlightenment seemed to apply primarily to white men. Complaining of this, playwright-within-the-play Olympe (Lu Meeks) is trying to organize her thoughts into her next work and as she does, she is visited and inspired by three distinctly different women. Marianne (Tiffany Lewis) is a Haitian woman who has been sent by her resistance movement to seek liberty from the French government. Charlotte (Liz Webb) is a Frenchwoman who plans to take the revolution into her own blood-thirsty hands. And Marie (Melanie Simmons) unexpectedly seeks refuge from this country that wishes her dead. Together, they argue their way to strength and even solace, realizing that, though they may be silenced soon, the heartbeat of their cause may have just begun.
Ms. Gunderson repeatedly finds relevance in these women's stories that resonates in modern life. Though a row of guillotines haunts the stage for the entire evening, thee is a steady stream of black comedy in the play, even as it morphs into something ever more serious. And this cast proves themselves equally capable of humor and heartrending emotion. As Olympe, Lu Meeks provides a strong center for the production, creating a woman who feels less like a characterization and more like a person. Marianne, the former slave turned activist, is the most rational and sensible of the four, and Tiffany Lewis is appropriately stalwart and stern, commanding the attention Marianne deserves. As Charlotte, Liz Webb comes in like a storm and never relents. Clear-voiced and determined, she embodies the uncontrollable passion of a woman who has had enough of a male-dominated world. The standout of the cast is Melanie Simmons as Marie. With the wispiness of Marilyn Monroe and the comedic timing of a young Madeline Kahn, she delivers the frivolity expected of her character and yet finds unexpected nuance and even depth. Ms. Simmons rescues a character typically trivialized by history and makes her sympathetic and endearing.
Watching a play that explicitly prioritizes the stories of women, I occasionally wondered about the number of times these women spoke about the men in their lives. The modern expression for this is the Bechdel Test (coined by author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel). And there are times when Marianne's grief for her husband, Marie's musings about her husband the king, and a recurring joke about Charlotte's unrequited love might undercut the play's themes. Either way, it cannot be denied that these women are still determined strongly by the men in their lives, and Ms. Gunderson does not withhold that.
Director Amy White delivers a well-crafted production with strong technical support. Scenic design from Joncie Sarratt makes strong use of this theater in the round. Dark wood floor boards under the guillotines give way to lighter ones in Olympe's study, subtly symbolic of flowing blood. Kaitlin Gill Rider's lighting design is noteworthy particularly for its beautiful yet eerie use of tri-colored spots to evoke the French flag at various points. Sound design by John Maruca provides reminders of the dangers right outside the doors of Olympe's salon.
In the age of the #metoo movement, women still struggle to have their voices heard and to tell their own stories; just this week the nation was riveted by a woman testifying about her sexual assault to the U.S. Senate. This play urges us to rediscover, reevaluate, and remember the stories of women, including those we might think we already know. In the words of Sara Thompson, the dramaturg for this production, "It is the struggles of those who have come before us that make us able to continue the struggle today."
The Revolutionists, through October 14, 2018, by the Raleigh Little Theatre in the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.raleighlittletheatre.org or by phone at 919-821-3111.
Playwright: Lauren Gunderson