Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Mothers and Sons
Three of these women find their way to that lone surviving female playwright in Paris at the height of the French Revolution. Each is on a mission to have words written for her own just cause in order to influence history. The woman with the pen wants none of their distractions as she is busy writing a comedy for the stage as her own act of artistic defiance in the face of national crisis, but both a severe case of writer's block and foreboding fears of a trip to the guillotine are inhibiting her creativity.
Lauren Gunderson imagines a sorority of sorts forming among these four unlikely friendsthree real, one fictionalwith portraits of their bravery, foresight, and revolutionary spirits emerging in a dramatic play that is also very much a comedy. In a wonderfully conceived and acted production of The Revolutionists by Dragon Productions Theatre Company, their mostly untold/unknown stories reign forth in a play whose brilliant script speaks both truth and fiction as laughs rain down from the audience, even as the scaffold's blade hangs over the necks of all four.
Olympe de Gouges is stressed that the current revolution of 1793one we now know as The Reign of Terroris in full swing and "everyone is making history without me." She wants to quill a play that cannot just tell, but "force" people to feel. Better yet, she wants one that "could be about women showing the boys how revolutions are done." As she envisions a new work that might start as a comedy but end as a drama, little does Olympe know that is exactly the same idea that the woman penning her story, Lauren Gunderson, has in mind.
The play Olympe hopes to pen and that her creator, Lauren Gunderson, does write is one of feminism in the face of terrorism, of facts enriched by fiction, of art's role in promoting activism, and of a song of liberation that is sung even as the scaffold looms. Maria Marquis is stoically marvelous as an Olympe, who is full of serious intent to leave her mark on history, who holds herself in a posture proud of her accomplishments and possibilities, and who also is frightened that her play will have an ending which even the very thought of terrifies her.
Dressed in her subdued but professional best in the French style of the time, Olympe struggles to begin a play whose first words will not come. Out of the blue, her friend Marianne Angelle arrives in a blast of urgency, wearing colorful attire speaking of her native Saint-Dominque (a French colony in the Caribbean) with a red sash across her chest declaring "Revolution for All." Jenafer Thompson forcefully, determinedly and passionately plays the island rebel who has remained in Paris to gather information as a self-declared spy while her husband has gone home to fight in a revolution against French slavery of their people. She wants Olympe to write her a pamphlet exposing the "immoral and hypocritical actions" of a nation that is now itself in rebellion for "liberté, egalité, fraternité," while at the same time running a slave colony. Much to Marianne's irritation, Olympe would rather make decisions if her desired play should have puppets or be a musical (but certainly not a musical with that sound bite of an anthem they keep hearing from something the world will someday know as Les Miz).
As the two debate what is to be written, two more visitors arrive in the writer's study. First is Charlotte Corday, bursting in with brashness befitting a woman on a killing mission, which in fact she is. With a knife in hand, she is out to murder the notorious Marat, a journalist who continues to create lists in the newspapers of people who end up losing their heads. Charlotte realizes her act will leave her in the same headless state, and all she wants is "a line"some last few, heroic words she can yell out that people will repeat in the centuries to come. Melissa Jones is an enraged and engaged, manic-minded, blade-swerving Charlotte who is just looking for a few last words"something with a lot of 'fuck you' in it."
And as the heat rises among the three of whose words will be written by a playwright who yet has to pen one word on paper, in enters a joke just waiting to be told, their former queenthe only one of the four with half a chance to be long-rememberedMarie Antoinette. Dragon founder and former Artistic Director Meredith Hagedorn comes close to stealing the entire show every time her wig-heavy, makeup-laden Marie opens her mouth to let out another inane remark. Marie is intent on Olympe writing something to correct misconceptions about her. "Just to be very clear, I did not say that bit about the cake ... That was out of context ... I thought I was ordering lunch."
Amidst puns, anachronistic references, and accidental and purposeful jokes and ribs, the four women slowly jell into a sororité of women who begin to understand that the play that is to be written is the play they are in. "The story is real when it starts," says Olympe. That story, she notes, "might be fiction, but it's not fake." And even as she still tries to decide what story and even whose story to write, Olympe tells her gathered sisters, "I don't know what I'm writing yet, but I know that our voices deserve the stage."
With Lauren Gunderson's captivating, amusing, but highly educating and impacting script, these women do get a moment in the stage's spotlight finally to tell their story. Without the playwright saying so, we understand these four are standing in the stead of thousands of women like them throughout history's important moments of revolutionary and evolutionary changes whose stories have long faded behind those of their husbands/brothers/sons, compatriots, and even enemies.
Director Caitlin Papp has taken this script full of comic and historical punch and added many touches to enhance the fun and the funny but also the serious. Her intent both to draw laughter and to elicit new insight from the Dragon audience is further enabled by outstanding efforts from her creative team. Nathanael Card has designed a blank stage ready to be filled with words and women that has a backdrop of a humongous representation of the killing blade and the round target of the guillotine. His raised platform stage illuminates from underneath with the red blood of the victims as part of his own lighting design. The sound design of Jacob Vorperian echoes with harbingers of heavy wooden carts on cobblestone carrying the condemned and of muddled, angry voices of rebels turned bloody zealots. Kae Jenny-Spencer differentiates the four personalities of our heroines-in-the-making through period-appropriate costumes, with her efforts given the final touches through the hair and make-up design of Melissa Jones. All told, the play's impact is greatly made all the stronger by the inspired talents of this team.
Throughout the play, Lauren Gunderson and Caitlin Papp's teaming as writer and director makes great uses of music, both that which is piped in and that sung a cappella by one or more of the women. "Our Song" becomes a thread that links their lives, their efforts, and eventually their deaths. The haunting words follow each to the end, often sung by a sister in support as another faces her bladed death. Those women's words still ring in our ears as we leave the remarkably compelling comedy/drama of The Revolutionists by Dragon Productions Theatre Company:
"Who are we, without the riot?
The Revolutionists, through February 10, 2019, at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City CA. Tickets are available online at dragonproductions.net or by calling 650-493-2006.