Oil Lamp Theater's ably acted 'Revolutionists' a salute to sisterhood
"The Revolutionists" - ★ ★ ★
"Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité."
That rallying cry, perhaps the best-known slogan of the French Revolution, was incomplete in that it omitted a key component: sororité. That point is made by the four characters in "The Revolutionists," Lauren Gunderson's comedy about art, activism, agency and sisterhood in an intimate, ably acted revival at Glenview's Oil Lamp Theater.
Set during the Reign of Terror, "The Revolutionists" opens with an image of a guillotine in silhouette, foreshadowing the fate of three of its four characters. It is a grim way to start a comedy, observes Olympe de Gouges (Hannah Hammel), the 18th century French playwright and human rights activist who's battling writer's block while attempting to chronicle her nation's violent insurrection, albeit at arm's length.
She insists her play will be "the voice of this revolution, but not the hyperbolic, angry-yelling kind. I will write the wise and witty kind that satirizes and inspires and says to the held breath of a rapt audience something profound."
That's a tall order, which Gunderson's highly meta-theatrical play-about-writing-a-play doesn't entirely fill. As timely today as it was when it premiered in 2016, "The Revolutionists" is a heady examination of value of art, the necessity of sacrifice, the importance of bearing witness and the impossibility of knowing for certain "the rightness of our revolutions" and "the heroes of our stories." That said, the self-conscious, inside-theater asides and the eye-rolling puns can be precocious. The play repeats itself in the overly long first act and tends to bask in its own self-importance.
The costumes are puzzling. Two pair contemporary and period details that underscore the play's timelessness. The overall design, however, lacks consistency. The other costumes, set squarely in the 18th and 21st centuries respectively, lack those telling anachronistic touches.
However, director Elizabeth Mazur Levin's production is fundamentally sound and her unfailingly sincere cast delivers.
Much of the action unfolds in Olympe's study, where her writing is interrupted by visitors. First to arrive is her friend Marianne Angelle, the soul of "The Revolutionists." Played with conviction and fervor by the expressive Noelle Klyce, Marianne is a fictional rebel from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) who's fighting alongside her husband to abolish slavery there. Pointing out the hypocrisy of French people rebelling against their oppressors in their native land while enslaving colonists in the Caribbean, Marianne wants Olympe to write pamphlets to support her countrymen's rebellion.
Next to arrive is Charlotte Corday (an impassioned Ksa Curry), the fearless young dissident who intends to assassinate the radical Jacobin politician and journalist Jean-Paul Marat. Realizing she will be executed, Charlotte wants from Olympe some memorable final words to utter before her death.
The final visitor is deposed queen and comic relief Marie-Antoinette, played by the terrific Lisa Dawn, a Buffalo Theatre Ensemble member who earns every one of her character's laughs. More savvy and self-aware than she initially appears, Marie-Antoinette asks Olympe for a rewrite that will "make me majesty again."
The production's most powerful scenes involve Marianne. Relentless in her pursuit of justice, she wears a sash that reads: "revolution for all," a reminder that for women, people of color, the disenfranchised and the powerless the struggle for freedom persists. The play's most affecting moments involve the communion between the survivor Marianne and her doomed, real-life counterparts: bonding with the unexpectedly insightful Marie-Antoinette over shared loss; comforting the martyr Charlotte; cajoling into action the self-absorbed Olympe (described by Gunderson as an "armchair activist" who wants credit for the rebellion without risking herself or her career).
In taking that risk, Olympe proves herself worthy of the lofty pronouncements she makes during the play's opening scene.
"Our voices deserve the stage," she says. "We deserve to be our own heroes, everyone's heroes. This is our time to be known and heard."
For all time.
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Location: Oil Lamp Theater, 1723 Glenview Road, Glenview, (847) 834-0738, or oillamptheater.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through April 30
Running time: About 2 hours, 20 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Street parking available
Rating: For older teens and adults, includes mature language and content
COVID-19 precautions: Masks optional