Women's French History in The Revolutionists Where the Guillotine Awaits

Malinda L. Beckham as Olympe de Gouges and Jasmine Renee Thomas as Marianne Angelles.
Malinda L. Beckham as Olympe de Gouges and Jasmine Renee Thomas as Marianne Angelles. Photo by Gary Griffin

Would you be surprised if you were told that the most produced playwright in America is Lauren Gunderson? Who?

If you're a theater goer in Houston, you've seen her work, especially at Main Street Theatre – Silent Sky; Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly; The Wickhams (a sequel to Miss Bennet); The Book of Will. There are others sure to be produced: Ada and the Memory Engine; The Half Life of Marie Curie, You and I. According to the American Theatre Organization, Gunderson has topped the list of most produced writers for the stage for the last two seasons, pre-COVID. Her works are historical, witty, and almost always focus on the female, usually those neglected in the male rush of history.

One of her best works is Silent Sky, a dreamy homage to astronomer Henrietta Levitt, who calculated the breathe of the universe while laboring at Princeton University at the turn of last century. She wasn't allowed in the hallowed observatory to look at the skies the men plotted; no, she and her women colleagues toiled at their desks studying hazy photographs of what the guys took pictures of. It was numbing drudge work, monotonous, and ruined one's eyesight. But it was her discovery of the shifting star positions that led to her colossal eureka moment that the infinite heavens could be measured. Levitt did it. The men took credit. Eventually history begrudgingly awarded Levitt the recognition she was due, but by then it was much too late, she was long dead. But not too late for Gunderson.

She relishes telling these sorts of stories where she unearths forgotten and buried tales of women, their accomplishments, and their justifiable place in history, science, literature. If history is always written by the winners (males), then Gunderson is here to set things right.

A graceful and effective production from Dirt Dogs Theatre Co., The Revolutionists (yes, also previously presented by Main Street) chronicles in whimsical and fantastic manner the lives of four influential women during the French Revolution: philosopher, pamphleteer, playwright Olympe de Gouges (Malinda L. Beckham); activist Marianne Angelles (Jasmine Renee Thomas) who's in Paris to demand justice for her enslaved people of Saint-Domingue, a West Indian colony of France undergoing its own revolution; virginal firebrand Charlotte Corday (Annie Wild) about to murder Jacobin terrorist Jean-Paul Marat; and last, but certainly not least, Marie Antoinette (Melissa J. Marek), doomed queen of France. All three have barged into Olympe's Paris apartment asking for help as the mob rages in the streets braying for blood. She's the writer, quick, write my final line says Corday; help me write a declaration of freedom, pleads Marianne; give me better press, demands a petulant, clueless Antoinette.

As Olympe wrestles with writer's block in the face of hellish external events outside her “safe place” – “Crisis demands art” and “My plays piss off the right audiences” – these three visitations haunt, cajole, and edify. We might be watching the play Olympe's struggling to write.

This mashup of history is catnip for Gunderson who mixes styles, colloquial speech, and the process of playwriting into a kaleidoscopic entertainment. It's comic until Madam Guillotine begins lopping off their heads. The women also spur Olympe to do more for the Cause, although what more she could have done is not in Gunderson's wheelhouse.

We're in Paris, circa 1793, when the Reign of Terror is at its bloodiest. One of history's most ardent feminists, perhaps its first, de Gouges was France's foremost female playwright, who astonished and then humiliated the males in power with her 1791 “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen.” In plays and broadsides, she fiercely advocated sexual freedom, anti-slavery, and utter equality across the board. She actually petitioned Louis XVI to act as his advocate during his show trial but was flatly rebuffed. No king wanted to be defended by a woman. A staunch revolutionist, she saw no advantage in killing the monarch, useless though he was. Ahead of her time, she was never at a loss for words, but Gunderson turns her into a dithering piece of inaction. This is terrible injustice to de Gouges, but Beckham plays her as Gunderson asks, and dithering becomes her. Skittering on high heels, she paces like a tiger as ideas fail her. But she gains needed stature on the scaffold, calling us to remember these women, even if history might not be kind.

As Marianne, Thomas is fierce and indomitable in her leather vest and red sash that proclaims, Revolution for All. You can easily believe her leading a nation to revolt; and Wild, as Corday, and painted by Gunderson, is not mad, merely laser-focused and full of fervor. “I don't want to sound like a dingbat,” she confesses to Olympe. She wants a good exit line for her execution, to be remembered.

The inept Antoinette, always waiting for her trumpet fanfare, has the last laugh on the revolution – and the play. She is its neo-modern spirit as she drips noblesse oblige like her multiple strands of pearls. Flighty and marvelously opaque in her transparent pannier, she is Gunderson's ace creation, and Marek captures every nuance inbred in this Housewife of Versailles. She oozes entitlement yet is utterly sympathetic. She rightly surmises what her fate will be – immortality. Between bouts of velvety quips, she's clearheaded enough to see that, in history's telling, it's always the women who have to change, not the men. Of all the lofty messages Gunderson sprinkles throughout, this one is most prescient and rings the truest. Marie Antoinette might not have gotten the press she wanted, but she is definitely remembered. Her brief trial scene grants her dignity.

Malinda L. Beckham's punk-inspired costumes are justly ripe and fresh: Olympe's breezy great coat with its black and white stripes is a stunner. The clothes have enough hints of ancien-regime but wouldn't look out of place in Tootsie's window; while Mark A. Lewis' minimal set and sound design is entirely right for this gauzy play of the mind – a desk, a divan, a bookcase, a scaffold. The guillotine is a projection, abetted by a thudding finale.

Dirt Dogs pays lively tribute to Gunderson's sisters of the Revolution. Read Olypme de Gouze's “Declaration” and have your eyes opened. For 1791, it's truly revolutionary.

The Revolutionists continues through November 6 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; 7:30 p.m. November 1, Industry Night. Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. @ MATCH, 3400 Main. Masks suggested but not required. For more information, call 713-521-5433.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover