“The Revolutionists” in review

Isabella Hunter, Campus Life Reporter

Last week, “The Revolutionists” by Lauren Gunderson took the Harper Joy Theatre by storm: a feminist political comedy based somewhat in reality and packed with controversy, drama and death. 

Starring a cast of four, the leading ladies were Lucy Evans-Rippy, Zoe Schacter-Brodie, Lola Bloom and Monica R. Harris. Each of the women portrayed (except Marianne Angelle) were historical figures brought to life. Evans-Rippy acted as the feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges, who was beheaded for her seditious scripts, Schacter-Brodie played Charlotte Corday, the woman who assassinated Jean Paul Marat (a leader of the Reign of Terror) and Bloom embodied the infamous Marie Antoinette. Harris performed the role of Marianne Angelle, a spy and a metaphorical representation of the many free Black women who helped lead the Haitian Revolution but whose stories were never told. 

Set in Paris during the Reign of Terror in 1793, these bold women feel left behind by the French Revolution and go on to take matters into their own hands. Before they attend their own executions, they decide to write a play about women’s rights. Ultimately they struggle to finish it before they are beheaded, the real tragedy of this comedy. 

Most of the play takes place in Olympe de Gouges’ study, the setting as intimate as the characters in it, and the actresses tell the story through almost exclusively private conversations. No big opening number, no huge set, cast or costume changes, just four actresses with no room for forgetting lines.  

The play is set up to make a powerful statement about the women whose histories have been forgotten, despite their roles in shaping it. Coming out of the first act though, this message was muddied by stereotypical representations of women, tone deaf dialogue and performative activism. 

The script attempts to show these women as feminine and strong, but when portraying their “feminine” sides, it repeatedly makes them the butt of the joke. The character Marie Antoinette is perhaps the most egregious example of this. Made out to be ditsy, annoying and vain, she comes across as too silly to fully grasp the horrors of slavery. As a form of comedic relief, both Olympe de Gouges and Charlotte Corday will collapse on the floor in a fit of childish emotion, or get worked up in a frenzy of hysteria (bear in mind, Marie Antoinette is 37 and Olympe de Gouges is 45, but in this play they are both supposed to be 38). 

Women “overreacting” as a form of comedy is as old as it is sexist. The word “overreacting” implies that the actor’s emotions are disproportionate to the situation because they are naive to the reality of it. Furthermore, and perhaps more insidious, is that in order to convey the naivety of the actor, the emotional outbursts are often portrayed as childish and cute. This only works because it plays into the assumptions that women are generally naive and more emotional. As much as we try to distance ourselves from these assumptions, they remain prevalent, reinforced by our experiences with doctors, dealerships and drama.

What’s interesting to watch is how in the first part, the ladies’ biggest reactions happen as a response to the smallest things. That’s the joke. Olympe de Gouges is woefully self absorbed, Charlotte Corday is worried about looking “crazy” and Marie Antoinette is concerned about her reputation. However, in the second part, the women are going through hugely traumatic events with measured vulnerability and poise. No emotions feel out of place or proportion. As a result, every conversation in the second half feels more real, as if they evolved from capricious prima donnas in part one to middle-aged women who handle high stakes and complex emotions with grace in part two.

Perhaps this was done with the intention of allowing these women to exist as women without all the pressures that face them in the second half, but this would only further emphasize the need to get it right, and not portray those feminine sides as the punchline.

To make matters worse for the first half, the only woman who didn’t “overreact” was Marianne Angelle. Her character embodies the “strong Black woman” trope, characterized by a no-nonsense, justice-driven, stern yet nurturing figure who has overcome incredible adversity in her lifetime. According to The Take, “She has a strong moral compass and holds others accountable.” This would be a perfectly appropriate character to write for someone like Angelle who is living through the Haitian Revolution, if it wasn’t one of the most prominent archetypes written for Black women already. An article by My Met Media called “Unbreakable and Superhuman” explains,By adopting and reproducing the icon of the strong Black woman [we] help craft an expectation that they should be autonomously responsible and self-denying caregivers in their homes and communities.’ … We can’t continue to expect our young Black women to be the pinnacle of strength and dedication.”

The character description in Gunderson’s script says it all, introducing her as “A badass Black woman in Paris…Tough, classy, vigilant, the sanest one of them all.” She seems to exist almost solely as a tool to help the other three overcome their struggles and push them to be better people, as well as being the only character who is not based on a real historical figure, despite the many Black women who helped lead the Haitain Revolution, such as Suzanne Bélair, Cécile Fatiman, Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité, Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniére and Victorian Montou to name a few. She is a white woman’s ideation of a Black woman.

Further perpetuating these uncomfortable dynamics, Gunderson has Marie Antoinette (described in the script as being “totally unaware” and “unintentionally rude”) make racist comments about slavery to Angelle, and then has Angelle angrily respond to the comments, with little to no help from the other two women in the room. Antoinette enslaved many people but in this play seems unapologetic and even apathetic to that fact. This sets up a dynamic where later in the play, it is on Angelle to forgive Antoinette and recognize her ignorance in order for their relationship to progress, and at no point does Antoinette come to her senses and apologize, nor does the play further explore ideas around slavery, racism and class. 

Act one fell flat because of its lack of depth. While the characters repeatedly have conflicts over privilege and the importance of storytelling, those concepts aren’t explored beyond frustrated exchanges, and neither are the characters’ personalities. These big ideas like class and slavery are mentioned, but only to score cheap political correctness points with the audience, before never addressing the issues again. Angelle’s concern for this entire first half is that Olympe de Gouges won’t write about the abolition of slavery, and then they both completely forget about that by the end of the play. Act one gets two stars, because the skilled actresses managed to give the shallow dialogue some depth.

In what is perhaps the greatest redemption arc since Zuko, act two was phenomenal. Character development, intimate conversations and philosophical explorations about storytelling brought the idea behind the play to center stage. 

The mid 2010 “girlboss” feminism that Gunderson brought into the first act has mostly dissipated, in its place is a sobering humanization of the women in the study. Marie Antoinette exits stage by decapitation with as much poise and dignity as one can, and Olympe de Gouges’s relatable cowardice turns to solemn bravery as she is able to chronicle Antoinette’s death, knowing that she too will be taken to the scaffolds. 

The importance of Olympe de Gouges’s play is magnified in this second half as the guillotine looms overhead and the script remains unwritten. The end of the performance is in sight but these women’s lives have yet to be recorded. This suspense is made worse by the connection the audience has formed with the characters, who are vividly portrayed by their respective actresses. 

Evans-Rippy does a really wonderful job playing Olympe, who is both passionately arrogant and deeply sincere about her work. Every mannerism is expressive and draws attention to her feelings in each moment. Her character arc is meticulously rendered and truly convincing. She is simultaneously genuine, overzealous and a little bit conceited. 

Schacter-Brodie absolutely killed it as the brave assassin Charlotte Corday. Young but practical and driven, Corday is focused and just, the quintessential Gryffindor. A mix between certainty and self-doubt, she beautifully executes the role—and Jean Paul Marat. 

For all the critique of Antoinette, Bloom pulled off the pompous pink haired queen flawlessly. Despite the script, she comes off as oddly endearing in her worst moments and positively regal in her best. She has multiple layers to her glitzy-ditsy personality, and Bloom manages to balance all of them, creating a dynamic, nuanced and consistent character.

While Angelle as a character is controversial, Harris brings the genuine idea behind her to life. If she is supposed to embody the many free Black women who helped the Hatiain Revolution, Harris plays her as if Angelle knows what she symbolizes. Dignified and tenacious, Angelle is given a personality of her own through Harris’s deeply ardent and vulnerable performance. 

Once the play abandoned its clunky humor and started to focus on character development, the emotional scenes became real and intimate. The actresses were incredible, each of them inseparable from their characters, and their inevitable fate at the guillotine is made all the more impactful by their performances. We finally learn that the whole production was what Olympe de Gouges supposedly thought up just a few minutes prior to her beheading. This is Lauren Gunderson’s homage to the real de Gouges, a play about a playwright writing a play about the incredible women around her who will never be remembered. Thank God Gunderson wrote this to remember them by. Act two gets four stars.