In the “special thanks” section of Main Street Theater's playbill for Lauren Gunderson's new play The Revolutionists, whose world premiere occurred last February at Cincinnati Playhouse, among such acknowledgments to United Airlines, Houston Arts Alliance, the Alley Theatre and Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company, you will find a tip of the hat to Marie Antoinette, the infamously famous queen of France. Whether this is meant as cheeky homage or tribute I cannot say, but the doomed queen does deserve special mention, for without her – and Bree Welch's deliciously tipsy portrayal – Gunderson's feminist serio-comedy about personal choices in the direst times would be a much more difficult undertaking.
That's not to say the production isn't exquisitely handled by the quartet of actors, who are all excellent and fully committed to the task, thanks to director Andrew Ruthven's precise handling. The minimal set design by Jodi Bobrovsky (chaise, writer's desk messy with crumbled pages and quill pens, chandelier overhead, map of France as stage floor, looming guillotine upstage) is classy and elegant; the period costuming by Macy Lyne is aptly ancien régime tinged with contempo flourish; the lighting by J. Mitchell Cronin is theatrically lively; while the sound design by Yezminne Zepeda is eerie with the crash of impending catastrophe just out of sight. Everyone at Main Street has thrown him or herself into the play with heartfelt abandon and laser focus; it's Gunderson who travels in circles.
We're in Paris, circa 1793, when the Reign of Terror is at its bloodiest. Where we really are is inside the mind of playwright Olympe de Gouges (Shannon Emerick), as she struggles with writer's block in the face of hellish external events outside her “safe place.” One of Houston's finest, Emerick, in her mannish sans-culottes, poet's blouse and brocade vest, exudes passion and earnest commitment with steely fire and resolute integrity. Why does Gunderson show de Gouges, one of history's most ardent feminists, perhaps its first, as such a dithering fool?
Not knowing what to write was never a problem for France's foremost female playwright and pamphleteer, 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 was never at a loss for words. Although turned down, she petitioned Louis to act as his advocate during his trial. A staunch revolutionist, she saw no advantage in killing the monarch, useless as he was. (Madame de Gouges would never have been caught dead in trousers, either, but that's another matter, but her male garb here stands in, I think, for her “outsider” character the playwright demands. In or out of trousers, she was certainly ahead of her time.) Hobbled by her character's inaction, Emerick displays more than enough righteous indignation and inner will to override the author's mischaracterization.
As de Gouges single-handedly arm wrestles with “drama” and play construction (“Crisis demands art,” and “My plays piss off the right audiences”), she is visited by three other women of the Revolution who are there to haunt, cajole and edify. We might be watching the play de Gouges is trying to write.
First in, activist Marianne Angelle (Callina Situka, carrying her own distinct qualities of determination and downtown gritty truth), a freeborn black from Saint-Domingue, the French colony currently in the throes of its own revolution. She spurs de Gouges to write not what she knows, but what she wants. “Find the heart, not the art,” is the first of her many Hallmark sentiments to tempt de Gouges into action. A powerful stage presence, Situka is mighty persuasive with her red sash proclaiming Revolution For All. She turns her drippy couplets into a more complete character than Gunderson does. We can imagine her on the barricades or marching to Versailles to herd back the king and his court.
Speaking of barricades, why does Gunderson insist on parodying Les Misérables, getting cheap laughs by quoting lyrics and having de Gouges constantly reference turning her play into a musical? It's too easy a mark for this accomplished playwright (Silent Sky; I and You; Exit, Pursued by a Bear), who must know that Les Miz has nothing whatever to do with the French Revolution. Had she parodied 1776 or Hamilton, she'd be a tad closer. But in this quasi-illusional comedy, she goes for the simplest reference so everybody in the audience can snicker at the in-joke.
After Marianne, Charlotte Corday (Molly Searcy, her flame-red hair like a liberty cap) storms in needing an exit line. She's determined to assassinate the bloodthirsty Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat, and she knows she'll need an excellent excuse when caught, and one final line before she's beheaded. “I don't want to sound like a dingbat.” One thing's for certain, Mlle. Corday never sounded so rational or more sincere than when judged before the Tribunal, although "judged" is an operative word, since her guilt was evident and her deed neatly done. “I've killed one to save one hundred thousand” were her words ascending the scaffold, mocking Robespierre's boast after dispatching Louis XVI. Searcy has plenty of revolutionary fervor, and she shakes the most out of virginal Corday's rage and potency.
Saving the play from itself, Marie Antoinette barges in, looking off for her trumpet fanfare. “I'm here for a rewrite,” she commands with utmost dignity and faraway demeanor. Perhaps channeling David Adjmi's valley girl in his Marie Antoinette (2012) or Kirsten Dunst's spoiled brat in Sophia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette (2006), Gunderson glosses her Marie with comic entitlement, girlish giggles and an utter sense of noblesse oblige.
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Utterly clueless but winsomely sympathetic, Bree's fateful queen knows exactly what she wants, though. “I care,” she says defensively, “I just need better press.” Welch runs away with the play, the most non-revolutionist imaginable. She might as well still be ensconced at Petit Trianon, playacting shepherdess hoping the storm clouds will clear. Petulant and childish, bedecked in silk panniers and décolletage, Bree holds the stage by being the most alive on it.
She doesn't dither but rightly surmises what her fate will be – immortality. Between bouts of velvety quips, she's clearheaded enough to see that it's always the women who have to change, not the men. Of all the many lofty messages Gunderson sprinkles throughout, this one, coming from the mouth of babes, is most succinct and prescient.
Although the play never finds its real heart because it's too busy being overtly metatheatrical, Gunderson's anachronistic style gives these sisterly women of the Revolution their time in the sun. It's long overdue. Read Olympe de Gouges' “Declaration,” available in the lobby, and have your eyes opened. For 1791, it's quite amazing – and truly revolutionary.
The Revolutionists. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Through October 2. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36 to $39.