The Revolutionists – Review by Geary Danihy

Present at the Revolution

“What’s playing at Hartford Stage?’
“(Insert here the name of a favorite play or musical you’ve probably seen more than once.)”
“Great, I’ll get tickets. How about at Playhouse on Park?”
“Something called ‘The Revolutionists.’”
“Never heard of it.”
“Neither have I.”
“I think we’ll pass.”

This conversation is not surprising, given the need to wisely use limited entertainment dollars. We have a tendency to go with the familiar rather than the unfamiliar, to bet on the tried-and-true rather than the untested. However, in the case of “The Revolutionists,” written by Lauren Gunderson, your decision to eschew an evening at Playhouse because you are unfamiliar with the play would be a big mistake, because “The Revolutionists” is a witty, engaging romp, an exercise into “what if?” history that satisfies on multiple levels and is more than worth the price of admission.

The play takes us to Paris during the height of the Reign of Terror and introduces us to four characters who, in real life, probably never met. First, we meet Olympe De Gouges (Rebecca Hart, who is blessed with a great sense of comedic timing), a frustrated female playwright whose theme song might well be “I Can’t Get Started.” Her only distinction is that she is probably the only female playwright in Paris, and it is for this reason that her door opens and in marches Charlotte Corday (the magnetic Olivia Jampol, who plays Corday as if she is a member of a female rock band and has time-traveled from the 1970s to the late 1700s).

Why has Corday come to see De Gouges? Well, she plans to assassinate Jean-Paul Marat, a man who has sent hundreds of people to meet Madame Guillotine. Corday flashes a knife and demands that De Gouges write an appropriate final line for her, something memorable she can exclaim as she cuts the tyrant’s throat. As would be expected, De Gouges is a bit flummoxed. Her confusion, however, will not end here, for she is about to receive two more visitors.

Marianne Angelle (the steady, engaging Erin Roche) is a Caribbean revolutionist who wishes to throw off the yoke of French rule and wants De Gouges to write pamphlets and broadsides in support of her cause. For a writer who is suffering from severe writer’s block, this is becoming a bit more than demanding, but there’s one more person who seeks out De Gouges for her writing ability, and that is, yes, Marie-Antoinette (the marvelous Jennifer Holcombe who, for most of the evening, plays the queen as if she’s just come from playing Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.”). The queen believes that she has been misunderstood and wishes De Gouges to set the record straight (you see, she never actually said “Let them eat cake,” she was just ordering lunch and, after all, what’s lunch without a piece of cake?)

Thus the stage is set for 90 minutes of rapid-fire dialogue dealing with, among other things, feminism, misogyny, revolutionary zealotry, the theater and the dynamics of play writing. If all of this sounds like heavy baggage, it isn’t, for Gunderson has a marvelous sense of humor and is deft at writing witty repartee while sliding in multiple allusions to contemporary history and theater, all of which director Sarah Hartman is keenly attuned to.

Perhaps you’re thinking, well, this is a period piece so the dialogue will probably be littered with archaic words and made difficult to understand because of out-of-date syntax. Here, again, you would be wrong, for though these are characters who lived in the late 18th century, their vocabulary and style of conversation is definitely modern, which, in itself, creates much of the humor, for one would not expect, for example, Marie-Antoinette to speak about certain topics in the manner she does.

Gunderson has written what might well be called a verbal carnival that offers something for everyone, and the four superb actors seem determined that you not miss anything. Hart’s portrayal of the somewhat neurotic De Gouges, the first character we meet, establishes the slightly zany, verbal pyrotechnics that will fill the evening. If you weren’t sure that you had entered a Wonderland version of the French Revolution, Corday’s entrance will confirm that we’ve gone down the rabbit hole. With untamed golden locks, Jampol is a self-proclaimed assassin who seems to be on Speed, a whirlwind of emotions whose only wish is become immortal by insuring her place in history.

Of the four characters, Roche’s Marianne Angell seems to be the most stable as she works to help De Gouges overcome her inability to set pen to paper. Yet Roche instills in her character a dignity and dedication to “the cause” that is a nice counterpoint to Corday’s more histrionic approach to combatting tyranny.

Finally, there’s Holcombe’s Marie-Antoinette. The challenge of creating a “ditzy blond (or bewigged)” character is much akin to that of creating a “bad actor” character – there’s always the temptation to take the portrayal just a bit too far, but Holcombe, thanks to the dialogue she’s been given by Gunderson, while prancing and often babbling, allows her character’s innate intelligence to peek through.

To get the full benefit of attending and enjoying “The Revolutionists,” you have to pay close attention, for many of the best lines are, well, one-liners, such as Du Gouges comment to Marianne (who is black) that Thomas Jefferson would appreciate her, or when, near the end of the play, De Gouges envisions writing a musical about the Revolution, she asks, “Do you hear the people sing?” Her idea is rejected out of hand.

So, if you’re deciding how to budget your entertainment funds, give “The Revolutionists” a shot. You won’t begrudge the money spent, because the play is chock-full of verbal goodies and is brought to life by four actors who, each in her own way, beguiles and entrances. Quite simply, this is theater worth seeing.

“The Revolutionists” runs through March 10. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to http://www.playhouseonpark.org/.

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