San Francisco playwright turns French Revolution into serio-comedy
“The Revolutionists” is a tongue-firmly-imbedded-in-chic fantasy about the French Revolution with hyper-serious feminist overtones.
An opening night audience at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa filled half with women, half with men, proved the latter also could find the serio-comedy hilarious, smart and edifying.
Is the play — in which scribe Olympe de Gouges is quilling alongside three self-aware characters who speak in the anachronistic slang of the 2000s — focused on history?
Although they never met in real life, the four do interact in this droll, crisp theatrical bon-bon stuffed with bon-mots about the French Revolution, bonding — while sidestepping differences — because of commonalities as women.
Who are they?
• The deposed queen of France, Marie Antoinette, played masterfully by Lydia Revelos as a semi-ditsy blonde in whiteface, push-up bra and pompadour whose blue gown reflects royalty’s desire to flaunt perfection, purity and luxury.
• Charlotte Corday, adroitly portrayed by Chandler Parrott-Thomas as a screeching activist hell-bent on killing journalist Jean-Paul Marat.
• Olympe, fleshed out by Tara Howley Hudson as a chaotic scribe trapped in a man’s world who flails as she feverishly dresses and undresses but always remains committed to creating a “very important…comical but profound” stage legacy.
• And Serena Elize Flores, depicting a dark-skinned composite spy named Marianne Angelle who wears a sash that roars, “Revolution for All,” a sensitive free woman who represents working-class female abolitionists in Haiti.
I realized instantly that all four actors, gaily clad by costume designer Kate Graham, provide first-rate, over-the-top performances — and rate praise, too, because each obviously had to memorize a gadzillion lines.
Alternatively, though, is it possible that “The Revolutionists” is a last-minute fiction Olympe concocts while approaching an execution scaffold during the Reign of Terror?
Or is it just San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson’s way of questioning the meaning of art while artfully using a vintage play-within-a-play device?
Perhaps that as well.
The action is frenetic. Marianne, Charlotte and Marie sequentially burst into Olympe’s crumpled-paper strewn quarters with extraordinary writing asks — as a silhouetted, behind-a-scrim guillotine patiently waits to satisfy its blood-lust outside.
The first scene sets the play’s wry tone. Noisy, impressionistic head-chopping happens but Olympe, who at one point wears a bonnet that reminds me of the female Save-a-Soul missionary from “Guys and Dolls,” dismisses it: “Well, that’s not the way to start a comedy.”
A comedy “The Revolutionists” surely is, exemplified by Marie bemoaning that she needs “better press” because she hadn’t said “Let them eat cake,” that “it was taken out of context — I thought I was ordering lunch.”
Laughter also is evoked by stage business reminiscent of a Marx Brothers flick, such as Marie clownishly struggling to unwrap a mint, or waiting for trumpets to blare first so she can move — or Marianne choppily reciting, like a “Clue” game-player, that she “killed Marat. In the bathtub. With a steak knife.
Act II, not incidentally, turns serious, and is peppered with idealism and pathos.
In reality, as a foreshadowing of feminism and the #MeToo movement, Olympe had written a “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” in 1791. She’d called for gender equality in marriage and the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean’s French colonies.
But “The Revolutionists” made it easy for me to see why its 37-year-old San Francisco creator, Gunderson, playwright-in-residence at the Marin Theater Company, has become one of America’s most produced living writers of plays.
An appreciative audience laughed heartily — and often — particularly during the first two-thirds of the first act when her one-liners were are rapid and frequent as a routine from comedian Henny Youngman.
“The Revolutionists,” it should be known, is directed by Lennie Dean, who imbued it with astoundingly tight timing, and made it clear how much she enjoyed doing and seeing the show by often laughing out loud, not theatrically but authentically, from a seat on the side.
Is there a flaw in this production? Well, though I had no problem, I overheard a couple behind me, and some other folks mingling during intermission, say they couldn’t hear well when the non-microphoned actors were facing other than front-ways because it’s theater-in-the-round.
The bottom line?
An advertised pitch of the two-hour play is, “Four bad-ass women rewrite history!”
“The Revolutionists” will play at the 6th St. Playhouse’s Studio Theatre, 52 W. 6th St., Santa Rosa, through April 7. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $18 to $28. Information: 707-523-3544 orhttp://6thstreetplayhouse.com.