Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Here, in The Revolutionists, Ms. Gunderson makes an entirely different set of artistic mistakes, and it fills me with admiration that a very successful author is making the choice to grow. In this staging by Insight Theatre, her female characters are much less annoyingly noble than they were in Silent Sky (2015), about some of the first women astronomers; and less so than the Bennet sisters in her hugely successful stage sequel to "Pride and Prejudice," Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (2017). In each of those plays, she also allowed herself one distaff agitator, or she'd have had very little tension at all. Now, in The Revolutionists, her four protagonists are caught in the midst of "the Terror" in 1793, in the out-of-control violence of the French Revolution. So, once things get going (about 45 minutes in), there's precious little room for, well, preciousness.
Admittedly, till that 45-minute mark, The Revolutionists is winkingly self aware, with a central character who just happens to be a playwright with writer's block, and three characters around her (in Paris) who only want to exploit her talents. Exploitation has been a big theme, on stage or off, for Gunderson: in Silent Sky the exploitation is onstage, and in Christmas at Pemberley, it's the audience and Jane Austen who are plainly being exploited. But I guess we must finally accept that all of this play's initial simpering and self-referencing are elements of the "Gunderson style," and confess that there is also some surprisingly wonderful theater here, later on. Act one is heavy on wordplay (at a rudimentary level) but inches forward thanks to Ms. Gunderson's consistent humor, which is very definitely of the 21st century, despite the 18th century wardrobe. Just give her some elbow room, though, and the writer will eventually deliver the goods.
Jenni Ryan plays Olympe de Gouges, the last female playwright in the City of Light, as the guillotine blade sings down again and again (suggested by a nice lighting effect by Morgan Brennan). Ms. Ryan maintains the dubious balance between historical situation and modern comedy, but lacks intimacy in the role, under the direction of Trish Brown. This may be a natural liability of being in a Gunderson play, but she and the other three women on stage do gradually develop a sort of trapped-in-an-elevator camaraderie, as the revolutionary forces continue their dark mission: to rid France of the ultra class (and its theater). In her two most prominent past works, Ms. Gunderson refused to plumb the deep inner workings of any of her characters (unless it could serve as a plot device). But after The Revolutionists, I begin to think she may indeed be developing an interest in a deeper understanding of humanity.
Maybe the characters here are slightly more human, in part, due to the fancy costumes. These provide a visual sense of prestige and do the work of superficially ennobling Gunderson's women in a time of crisis. This seems to free them, slightly, to explore their societal roles and interior goals, though The Revolutionists is first and foremost a light comedy, set in a time of mass murder. As status is measured out in yard goods in Julian King's fine costuming, Kimmie Kidd and Samantha Auch are allowed to discover genuine idealism and desperation, one as an ex-slave from the West Indies, and the other as a girl who wants to murder the journalist Jean Marat. (Meanwhile, I'm totally ignoring the oddity of a deposed head of state simply popping up in Mme. De Gouges' apartment, unexplained.)
In any case, it's Laurie McConnell who steals the show as Marie Antoinette, the silly, doomed queen. The actress can easily do two things at once: in this case, be fluttery (in a huge white wig) and cleverly misdirecting, springing lots of jokes that catch us by surprise. It's just a super-plum comic role, with the perfect actress behind all that lace and crinoline to carry it off. And, despite my issues with Ms. Gunderson's past work (including the fact that her characters never don't seem to know what they're about, or what's going on), the author certainly knows how to get a laugh. In this two-hour show, Marie can feel her crown being tugged away again and again, but snatches it back every single time. Light years beyond the usual Gunderson manipulations, Ms. McConnell discovers the essence of tragi-comedy.
The Revolutionists, through July 14, 2019, at Insight Theatre Company, Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Dr., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.insighttheatrecompany.com.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association