Besides her obvious merits as a playwright in the typical sense of crafting intelligent dialogue, developing identifiable characters and creating an innovative context with which to engage them (and us), Lauren Gunderson also has a commendable knack for finding and focusing on obscure historical figures whose unsung stories deserve to be seen, heard and appreciated.
Most audiences probably weren't aware of the 18th-century French mathematician Emilie du Chatelet, until they were so shrewdly introduced to her in Gunderson's "Emilie" (presented in 2013 at Aurora). Or turn-of-the-20th-century American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, before they met her in Gunderson's illuminating "Silent Sky" (staged by Theatrical Outfit in 2015).
An Atlanta native now based in San Francisco, Gunderson’s bold and clever “The Revolutionists,” continuing through March 20 in an astoundingly accomplished show at 7 Stages, takes place during the “reign of terror” otherwise known as the French Revolution. It brings together an unlikely “sisterhood of heroes,” four disparate women who join forces — each with her own reasons — for the common good of gender equality, liberty and sorority, as it were.
At least two of them have recognizable names: the famously deposed monarch Marie Antoinette (brilliantly portrayed here by Park Krausen); and the equally notorious assassin Charlotte Corday (Rachel Frawley, holding her ground admirably). A third is an effective figment of Gunderson’s imagination, a Caribbean activist named Marianne Angelle (sensational newcomer Parris Sarter).
The fourth is based on another, less familiar real person, the writer Olympe de Gouges. (Alas, Stacy Melich is simply serviceable in the role, allegedly the play’s “most sympathetic character,” and yet the show’s least compelling stage presence.)
That three of these women are destined for the guillotine belies the fact that, in large part, “The Revolutionists” is fashioned as a savagely sharp pre-feminist farce. To paraphrase one of the characters, despite its alternately deeper and darker eloquence as a social and political expose, it’s not so much about the terror or death of a revolution as it is about defining power or grace in the face of that.
As mounted in 7 Stages’ black box of a studio space, it’s possibly the most strikingly realized piece of work we’ve seen from Heidi S. Howard, who was appointed artistic director in 2014. No small amount of credit is due to her design team — including the thrifty but handsome scenery of Vii Kelly, the evocative lighting of Katherine Neslund, the period costumes of DeeDee Chmielewski (with wigs by Monty Schuth), and the reverberating soundtrack of Dan Bauman.
In an earlier time and place, Gunderson’s (and Howard’s) “aggressive theatrical action(s)” might have been cause to cry, “Off with their heads!” Here and now, however, it’s rather a cause for rejoice. To be sure, the only major misgiving about the production may be that Howard didn’t opt to render it on the company’s main stage — if not in the interest of historical grandeur, then at least to ensure that more people could exercise their right not to miss it.