After their hits last season—The Clean House and Miss Shakespeare—I had high hopes for Three Sisters Theatre Company’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s political fantasy The Revolutionists. And Ottawa’s all-female theatre company delivers the goods. Mostly.
Director Bronwyn Steinberg gets fine performances from four talented actors. Rebecca Benson plays Olympe de Gouges, a Parisian playwright during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Cassandre Mentor is the fiery fictional Haitian revolutionary spy, Marianne Angelie. Victoria Luloff is the equally fierce Charlotte Corday, the assassin of the Jacobin zealot, Jean-Paul Marat. And Robin Guy plays Marie Antionette, royally.
In addition, the technical aspects of the production are superlative. The set design by Andrea Steinwand is one of the best I’ve ever seen…gorgeous in its own right and very serviceable for the purposes of the play. The costumes by the ever-reliable Vanessa Imeson are excellent, especially Marie Antoinette’s fantastic wig! Angela Schleihauf’s sound design is a treat, especially the baroque versions of pop songs prior to the start of the play. Laura Wheeler’s lighting design is effective without drawing attention to itself.
However, the play, while very entertaining, isn’t memorable. The problem is that Gunderson has written characters who are theatrical concepts, not humans. There’s the playwright with writer’s block, plus three characters conjured out of her imagination who want her to write for them: the passionate spy, the callow radical, and the self-centred aristo.
Yes, The Revolutionists is that peculiar beast—a play within a play. At times, things get very meta-theatrical. There are rather long stretches wherein Olympe declaims about the purpose of theatre, its political relevance, and so forth.
“It helps that the actors—particularly Robin Guy—are good comedians.”
Marianne wants Olympe to write her a pamphlet advocating liberty and equality for Haitian slaves. Charlotte wants Olympe to compose her final words—the ones she’ll say before she’s guillotined. She says, “My actions will be talked about for centuries and I don’t want to sound like a dingbat… I need a last line.” Marie wants Olympe to (re)write her history so she’ll be remembered in a more favourable light after she’s gone (“I need better press.”) The irony is that, although a theme of the play is that these women want to be remembered after they’re gone, none of them are memorable after the play ends.
The Revolutionists is also polemic. There’s a lot of feminist speechifying, especially by Olympe, who in real life wrote the influential Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. Even Marie Antoinette gets off a few bluestocking zingers such as “Why is it always the woman who has to change?”
Fortunately, Gunderson has a way with one-liners. Quite a few of them landed well with the opening night audience, such as: “No one wants a musical about the French Revolution!” (a snide reference to Les Miserables at which the audience guffawed). The juxtaposition of modern terms (such as “box office gold” and “intel”) and 18th century politics is also a source of humour. It helps that the actors—particularly Robin Guy—are good comedians.
In summary, The Revolutionists is a polished production of an enjoyable but forgettable fantasy comedy.
Three Sisters Theatre Company’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists is playing at The Gladstone Theatre (910 Gladstone Ave.) until February 23. The evening performances start at 7:30 pm; there are also matinees on Saturdays, on Sundays and on Thursday February 21. The performance is approximately two hours long, including one 20-minute intermission. Note that, mostly due to the profanity, the play is intended for audiences older than 14 years old or accompanied by an adult. Information and tickets at available online and at The Gladstone’s box office.