Review: The Revolutionists

Amanda Lee in The Revolutionists  Photo by April Porterfield

By Larry Laneer
July 8, 2018

The playwright Lauren Gunderson subtitles her play The Revolutionists as A Comedy, A Quartet, A Revolutionary Dream Fugue, A True Story.  It turns out the play is a true story in a way. The question is whose story?

According to American Theatre magazine, Gunderson is the most produced playwright (not named Shakespeare) during the 2017-2018 season. Small casts and easily adaptable settings have something to do with that, but Gunderson is an able writer who can turn a clever phrase and coin a quip.

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park is presenting The Revolutionists at its Paseo space under the sure hand of director Tyler Woods. This is by no means a great play, although it is worthy of staging. But OSP provides first-class performances by four actresses in a sharp-looking and well-conceived production.

The play takes place in 1793 Paris during the French Revolution, although Gunderson’s language and syntax are completely 2018. Three characters were real people, and the other is Gunderson’s creation. The real playwright Olympe de Gouges struggles to write a play. It’s the French Revolution, for goodness sake! She must write something important! The real playwright Charlotte Corday stops by on her way to assassinating Jean-Paul Marat to get a good line from de Gouges, which she can use just before being guillotined when they ask if the condemned has any last words. (Corday did kill Marat in his bath, as depicted by painter Jacques Louis David in The Death of Marat. The assassination is also in an influential 1964 play by Peter Weiss, the long title of which is usually shortened to Marat/Sade.) We also see Marianne Angelle (created by the Gunderson), a Haitian who has come to Paris to join the revolution. Before long, Marie-Antoinette (yes, that Marie-Antoinette) shows up.

Without outstanding performances by the cast, this play wouldn’t amount to much. As Marie-Antoinette, Amanda Lee almost makes off with the show in a case of grand larceny. Her Marie swings from total ditz to screech owl. She’s Trumpian in her unusual hair color and obsession with being liked. But Lee reveals the character’s greater depth in the second act. As written by Gunderson and performed by Lee, it’s an exercise in creating sympathy for a tyrant (or queen in a tyrannical regime).

Erin Woods (wonderful to see her on stage again) plays Olympe de Gouges, a writer who struggles with being relevant in turbulent times.  That Woods gives a solid performance comes as no surprise to theatergoers.

As the Haitian Marianne, Alexis Ward nails the character as the voice of reason among the self-possessed and discombobulated around her. Madison Hill knocks it out as Corday, a revolutionary who sacrifices her art for a higher political cause.

For the past several seasons, OSP has been known for outstanding costume design by Robert Pittenridge, who died last year. In this production, Elisa Bierschenk achieves the Pittenridge standard and raises questions. It’s hard to take your eyes off that red hat Erin Woods wears. But why does Hill wear nine wristwatches?

The play takes place mainly in de Gouges’s slightly seedy quarters (designed by Richard Carl Johns). Red painted wallpaper with gold fleurs-de-lis and red cloth dominate.

The director Woods employs music and sound to fine effect. In addition to playing Corday, Hill plays cello on recorded music that serves as an ostinato to the first act but pretty much disappears in the second act. Songs in the second act raise the emotional level of the play. To say more here would reveal too much.

To me the true story of Gunderson’s subtitle refers to her own story. In the first act, the characters say that a play about writing a play is the worst kind of play, which is the playwright preempting criticism. While the acting, staging, and design in this production make for an entertaining evening of theater, the play does not give the audience a particularly compelling story. Yes, playwrights and other creative souls may risk making the ultimate sacrifice for their art. But the same could be said of many other professions and endeavors.

The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through July 21
2:00 p.m. Sunday, July 15
Shakespeare on Paseo
2920 Paseo