Published July 6, 2018 | By Adrienne Proctor
Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, presented by Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park, offers a confusing and odd spin on historical events. It lumps four real women of the French Revolution together in a single room, as if they’ve all been stuck in an elevator, and attempts to find out what they have in common. These women who really lived and died in Paris in 1793 didn’t actually know each other. But if they had, what would they have said? It’s a lofty attempt at humanizing an iconic figure and three of her forgotten contemporaries.
Erin Woods is playwright Olympe de Gouges, a feminist writer who met her demise, like so many revolutionaries did, via the guillotine. Set before her trial and impending execution, the show focuses on de Gouges as she writes a would-be play and includes the queen, an abolitionist, an assassin, and herself in the narrative. She can’t come up with the name, but feels the best she’s got is something called The Revolutionists. Such is the tone for the entire show. It’s partly self-aware, but largely self-righteous and derogatory toward its audience. Who would watch a play called The Revolutionists, de Gouges asks, to the very patrons currently doing so. It sets in motion a question that it doesn’t manage to find its way back to answering.
Woods handles herself well as de Gouges, a disillusioned and misguided artist with murky convictions. Woods has lovely chemistry with the ladies she shares the stage with and works hard to make a dark comedy seem lighthearted, however doomed they all may be. As she writes, stops, and starts again, her characters join the scene, and they know how to make an entrance.
Alexis Ward bursts on stage as Marianne Angelle, a spy from the Caribbean and outspoken abolitionist who lead multitudes. Then comes Madison Hill as famed assassin Charlotte Corday. Saving the best for last, Amanda Lee pops into the scene in a cloud of powder and pink, donning rosy sunglasses and a very French bouffant. Lee is none other than Marie Antoinette, and her presence is queenly and commanding.
Lee creates a ridiculous queen, with all the pomp and snobbery of someone who has no idea just how awful they are. The high-pitched voice she employs is perfectly annoying, making her the most fascinating person in the room. Though insufferable, she’s delightful and fun, innocent to her own role in starting a war. Someone so clueless is hard to hate. Lee makes a relatable queen. We may not all be her, but we all know her, and that’s a feat, especially in the sky-high pink wig and cloud puff dress.
Ward and Hill have their respective stand-out moments, and Woods stays consistently present, but this show belongs to Lee. Something in her favor is that Marie Antoinette is arguably the most well-known character in the show, as many people have likely never heard of the other three. That detail serves another purpose of the play. A revolution is a full circle, and if you end where you’ve begun, what has really changed? If you die for your cause, but nobody remembers you, was your death in vain? Or worse, was your life?
It’s frustrating to see a work that reaches high but fails to extend its aim to something it can actually grasp. As a reviewer, I always appreciate theatre that is made for patrons. Even when it’s trying as hard as The Revolutionists does, I never want to blow smoke up anyone’s period costume. There are obvious problems with the show from a patron’s perspective. That may be despite the best efforts of the four leads, and may be because of them, too. Had they spoken with French accents, it would’ve been a much more convincing setting. Costuming is lacking except for Marie Antoinette’s, but even the glorious costume and top-notch performance of Lee can’t save the whole thing.
Direction by Tyler Woods is good, but some of the more subtle moments are just too subtle and far-reaching. Hill and Ward aren’t as memorable as they probably should be, which is a directing failure.
Lighting design by Carson Decker is superb, with poignant stripes that mimic the French flag, and a red wash for deaths and murder.
The play within a play concept is confusing and exasperating, a notion of theatre that doesn’t bring any value to the stage. Four real people squeezed into a singular, completely implausible story line adds to the confusion, and one of the four characters never offers an explanation for her fate. When and how three of the four women died is detailed in Act II, but one of the characters is left still standing by the end. The red ribbons around the necks of the other three is an artistic touch, but only serves to remind the audience that nobody bothered to explain what happened to the fourth woman.
The Revolutionists sends itself to the guillotine, and leaves the audience to wonder why they showed up to begin with. It leaves more questions than it brought answers. While there are intriguing moments, it’s just not the revelation, or the revolution, it promises to be.
I never wish to give away key plot elements or spoilers, but an important detail has come to my attention. I recently learned that the character Marianne, played by Alexis Ward, is not based on a real person. Ward’s character is based on the ideas of freedom, feminism, and motherhood, and she represents all the women of the French Revolution. This detail was not understood at the time of reviewing. The story is not clear enough to adequately convey this message. It proves another frustrating lack of attention to detail from the director, as well as an oversight on the playwright’s part. Never wanting to add to the confusion, I felt it was important to bring this detail to the forefront.
**UPDATE 5/29/2020** This review got me banned from Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park. I leave it posted here as a badge of honor, as it remains the first and only review that has resulted in an indefinite ban from a theatre. While the theatre cannot legally ban me from attending as a paying customer, they can refuse to comp me for my reviews. The feeling is mutual, however, because I do not wish to provide my energy or writing promotion to a director who is going to act like a petty child and ban a reviewer for saying he made directing mistakes. You can see from reading this review that I offer objective and constructive criticism of the piece. I am, essentially, doing my job. In the three years I’ve been professionally reviewing theatre in Oklahoma City, I have never been met with this kind of childish melodrama before or since. Tyler Woods has a well-deserved bad reputation in the theatre community, and I will gladly never review him or type his name again. #RESIST