Resisterhood is powerful in ‘The Revolutionists’ at Prologue Theatre

Under the surface of this comedy by Lauren Gunderson is a fervent purpose — the power of women who are willing to put their lives on the line for justice.

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” — Rebecca West

The Revolutionists is a feminist comedy about the French Revolution. Yes, that Revolution. And it works. Lauren Gunderson, hailed as the most-produced playwright in America, brings us a witty sisterhood of four determined women who learn to support one another, no matter what the cost.

Arika Thames (Marianne Angelle), Anna DiGiovanni (Olympe de Gouges), Fabiolla Da Silva (Marie-Antoinette), and Danielle Gallo (Charlotte Corday) in ‘The Revolutionists.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Our heroine, Olympe de Gouges (1748–1793) (Anna DiGiovanni) is a historical figure: a playwright and social activist for causes like abolitionism and women’s rights. She is probably best known for her pamphlet Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791), a reply to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was adopted by France’s National Assembly in 1789. She advocated for women’s suffrage over 100 years before the “first wave” of feminism in the early 20th century.

Olympe wants — oh, how she wants — to write a play about the Revolution. Unfortunately, she is suffering from a block. As played by Anna DiGiovanni, she is driven, committed, and passionate about the arts. Despite her writerly self-absorption, DiGiovanni’s appealing performance makes us root for her at every moment.

Olympe is interrupted by an old friend, Marianne Angelle (Arika Thames), the one non-historical character. Marianne is from the Caribbean, an activist for freedom from slavery. As far as she’s concerned, Olympe’s block is no tragedy; “Being ripped from your country, stuffed in the belly of a ship, carted across the world, and forced to break your back to make sugar for French pastries is a tragedy.”

Fabiolla Da Silva (Marie-Antoinette) and Anna DiGiovanni (Olympe de Gouges) in ‘The Revolutionists.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Marianne urges Olympe to help her by writing pamphlets to expose the hypocrisy of the French, who are fighting for libertéégalitéfraternité while running a slave colony in the West.

The two are joined by the soon-to-be famous and exceptionally focused Charlotte Corday (1768–1793) (Danielle Gallo), who has one purpose and one only: to kill the “sick, fundamentalist, political pundit who has caused the deaths of thousands of innocent people,” radical journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat (1743–1793). She enters seeking a line (in this case some last words) like a character out of Pirandello. More important, she is carrying a knife.

Marie-Antoinette (1755–1793) (Fabiolla Da Silva), the former Queen, wafts in, as if on a breeze. She wants a rewrite, and who can blame her? Subject to a hideous campaign of lies and violence, she has been scapegoated, as foreign princesses often are, for the failings of her husband’s regime. She complains about the amount of exposition she is saddled with. It seems the play takes place entirely in Olympe’s mind. It’s like Six Characters in Search of an Author, except it’s a comedy, and the author is right there onstage!

Initially, Marie-Antoinette is portrayed as the “Am I too pretty?” over-privileged white woman, an Uptown Girl for the ages. Her character gains depth throughout, though, and ultimately it is a sympathetic view of a woman who has been traduced for generations. Although poorly educated, Antoinette was not stupid. At the time the play takes place she has already been widowed. She has also lost two children. Her daughter Sophie was fragile from birth and died at six months. Her son the Dauphin died of likely spinal tuberculosis at the age of 7. Da Silva is wonderfully funny in the role, and displays flashes of compassion she was actually known for in life (and no, she probably did not say “Let them eat cake”).

The stakes grow higher as the play deepens. Under the surface wit and intensity is a fervent political purpose. And the power of women who are willing to put their lives on the line for justice.

Danielle Gallo (Charlotte Corday), Anna DiGiovanni (Olympe de Gouges), Arika Thames (Marianne Angelle), and Fabiolla Da Silva (Marie-Antoinette) in ‘The Revolutionists.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The settings are: a safe place, a study, the Tribunal, the scaffold. Scenic design by Matthew J. Keegan is simple, elegant, and effective.  Lighting design (Domino Mannheim) and sound design (Gordon Nimmo-Smith) are hauntingly appropriate. Costume design by Alison Samantha Johnson is imaginative and well-suited to character. Marie-Antoinette’s dress, predictably, is the most striking, ruffled and pale blue. At her trial, there are black-masked figures, ominous and final.

Lauren Gunderson has said:

Hell yes, this is political. The play is about a moment in history where the rich and poor were lightyears apart in lifestyle, the country was in multiple wars, the debt was huge, the workers were overtaxed, trust in the government was nil, the leaders were corrupt and greedy, racism, sexism, poverty, violence, extremism… The only difference between them and us is the year and the continent.

At a time when constitutional rights, notably those of women, are under serious attack, it is a pleasure to see women with passion, conviction, and intellect stand up for what they believe in. Director Jessica Lefkow has created a highly entertaining production with an enduring message.

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” — Audre Lorde

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

The Revolutionists plays through May 22, 2022, presented by Prologue Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($35 general; $25 students, seniors, teachers, military; $15 industry; $20 rush) online.

The program for The Revolutionists is online here.

COVID Safety: All patrons, visitors, and staff who visit the Atlas Performing Arts Center must be fully vaccinated by the date of their visit. Face masks are required at all times for all patrons, visitors, and staff regardless of vaccination status in all indoor spaces. The Atlas Performing Arts Center’s full Health and Safety Policy is here.

THE REVOLUTIONISTS by Lauren Gunderson

CAST
Olympe de Gouges: Anna DiGiovanni (she/her)
Marianne Angelle: Arika Thames (she/they)
Charlotte Corday: Danielle Gallo (she/they)
Marie-Antoinette: Fabiolla Da Silva (she/her)

CREATIVE TEAM

Director: Jessica Lefkow (she/her)
Scenic Design: Matthew J. Keegan (he/him)
Lighting Design: Domino Mannheim (she/her)
Sound Design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith (he/him)
Costume Design: Alison Samantha Johnson (she/her)
Technical Director & Founding Artistic Director, Prologue: Jason Tamborini (he/him)

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Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She has an extensive background in theater. Her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied Classics and English at Barnard and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time real estate editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.

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