Entertaining ‘Revolutionists’ at Arts Barn entertains multiple feminisms

Arts on the Green and Silver Spring Stage present Lauren Gunderson's imagined confab among four opinionated historical women.

Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a quasi-historical play about feminism and revolution set in Paris, seems an obvious choice to stage and open on Bastille Day 2023. This ambitious production, staged by Silver Spring Stage, features four ideologies and approaches to feminism and revolution embodied by four historical figures.

An argument can be made that The Revolutionists is less relevant in 2023 than when it was written, even just five years ago. Topics including white, moderate feminism; Black abolitionism; violent uprising; and the privileged detachment of the wealthy are all explored through four historical women: Olympe de Gouges, Marianne Angelle, Charlotte Corday, and Marie Antoinette, respectively. Each is given a unique voice, and the message of the script suggests that each form of feminism is valid and necessary to the revolution of gender equity. However, a play that depicts a Black abolitionist and former French Queen Marie Antoinette embracing and finding common ground, while suggesting that their approaches to feminism and revolution have equal importance, may not be the most relevant artistic choice to make in 2023.

Mary Wakefield (Olympe de Gouges), Alex Greenberg (Marie Antoinette), Emma Wesslund (Charlotte Corday), and Rachel Johnson (Marianne Angelle) in ‘The Revolutionists.’ Photo by Pam Burks.

Despite this, the production was overwhelmingly enjoyed by the audience, even with a heavy-handed script and sometimes questionable artistic choices, the audience was entertained, but perhaps not as challenged as the production intended them to be.

The technical aspects of the production were charming and intimate, but not always well utilized by the actors and direction. The set design, by designer and director Jen Katz, was minimalistic but visually unified — however, it was not well utilized by the actors’ blocking until after the first act. The costumes, by Mary Wakefield, did not always appear to live in the same “world.” Whether this was a hint at the meta-nature of the play was unclear. While the design choices for Olympe de Gouges and Marianne Angelle were aesthetically pleasing, they told little of the life and story of the characters, which was in deep contrast to the designs of Charlotte Corday and Marie Antoinette, which clued the audience into the characters as soon as they came onstage. The sound and lighting design, by Lucien Reubens and Steve Deming, respectively, shined as the most cohesive technical aspects of the production, especially aiding in the tonal shift between the first and second acts of the play. Overall, the designers utilized the small, intimate theater with deep knowledge and understanding of the space and its audience, even when that same level of familiarity was not always shared in the direction.

Mary Wakefield as Olympe de Gouges, our protagonist as the playwright of the meta-play, gives a commendable performance in her first full-length Silver Spring Stage show. The opening scene is difficult, as it requires the performer to clearly establish the tone of the play, as well as its meta-narrative; however, blocking choices and choices by the actor did not clearly establish either until much later in the first act, when Charlotte Corday enters. Overall, Wakefield’s choices are interesting enough to capture the audience and hold our attention, but awkward pacing and lack of discovery hinder the establishment of the overall story until much later in the play.

Rachel Johnson as Marianne Angelle (the only character in the play that was not based on a historical figure, but an amalgamation of several Black abolitionists of Saint-Domingue and other French colonies of the time) does her best with a poorly written character, who seems to function less like a real person than as an archetype whose sole purpose is to provide relief to the conscience of white feminists. Despite the limitations of the script, Johnson’s performance is funny, sharp, and full of heart — she makes the character her own and elevates her from an idea to someone the audience can believe truly existed.

Emma Wesslund (Charlotte Corday) in ‘The Revolutionists.’ Photo by Pam Burks.

Emma Wesslund as Charlotte Corday was an electric force from the moment the audience could hear her voice offstage. Perfect for the role of the passionate Charlotte Corday, Wesslund’s performance brought the necessary energy that the production was lacking in the opening scene, with the other players quickly matching her energy when they shared the stage. For better or worse, the play did not feel like it had properly begun until she was onstage.

Alex Greenberg as Marie Antoinette was funny, charming, and an overall delight to watch. Greenberg understood the character’s function in the narrative, and it was easy to be enamored by an unlikeable historical figure in her comedic yet nuanced performance. Had the audience been given more time to savor her performance through more favorable pacing, Greenberg’s performance would fully embody the larger-than-life personality that the legend of Marie Antoinette has become.

While The Revolutionists faced challenges such as difficult pacing, unclear tone, and inconsistent comedic delivery, the actors managed to navigate these obstacles and make the most of an increasingly irrelevant script. The cohesive and minimalist design elements added depth to the production, creating a visual clarity that aided in the often-murky tonal shifts. Despite its flaws, the play was enjoyed by the audience, and I highly recommend it to fans of Lauren Gunderson’s work. While it may not fully resonate with the current times, the production’s strengths and the dedication of the performers make it a worthwhile theatrical experience.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

The Revolutionists plays through July 23, 2023, presented by Arts on the Green in partnership with Silver Spring Stage performing at Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets ($22; $20 student), buy them at the door, or purchase them online.

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required.


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