Guillotines and Girl Power

By Connie Yeager

Vive les femmes! Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s female foursome française take back seats to no one in her sassy, irreverent world premiere comedy The Revolutionists.

Marie Antoinette is the only one of The Revolutionists’ historical figures who is instantly recognizable today, and she obviously didn’t have a good publicist. That, precisely, is one of Gunderson’s motivations for writing about “hidden history”: to shine a light on the mythology versus the humanity of each of her characters and to lend voices to obscure but significant heroines, who include playwright Olympe de Gouges and Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat. (His radical writings helped to fan the flames of the French Revolution into the raging, extremist wildfire that was “The Reign of Terror.”) The fictional fourth heroine, Marianne, stands in for all of the nameless free black women living in Paris at the time.

But wait. It’s a comedy. Each of Gunderson’s women has a unique voice, but all of them sport modern outlooks and conversational styles. Gunderson further embellishes that by slipping in sly references to current affairs, bringing them to the party in a way that transforms the characters into women who could hang with Lena Dunham, Tina Fey and Amy Schumer. They’re not “California Gurls,” but Katy Perry’s lyrics definitely apply to these Gallic Girls: “Fine, fresh, fierce, we got it on lock.”

“Lauren Gunderson is one of the hottest playwrights in America right now,” explains Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison about his decision to stage the world premiere of The Revolutionists in the Shelterhouse. “Theatres across the country are discovering her unique voice, her sense of style and comedy. Producing the premiere of her newest play is an ideal way to introduce a significant up-and-coming artist to our community.”

Gunderson’s play I and You was awarded the prestigious 2014 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and was also a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award. Her additional plays include Silent Sky, Bauer, By and By, Toil and Trouble and Exit, Pursued by a Bear.

But still — a comedy about La Guillotine? These women may have all lost their heads — literally — but they quickly demonstrate that they are the only ones thinking rationally as chaos surrounds them. They stand up as France descends into madness, demonstrating a passion and commitment to true égalité while they also dish about men, share sisterhood moments and zing each other’s follies. While fast-paced sarcasm and bon mots slice through their conversations, there is a real sense that these women, thrown together in the absolute worst of times, hold onto their humanity and develop a camaraderie that surprises even them. They’ve got each other’s backs in the ways that matter most.

“While the play is set in the 18th century, the four women in The Revolutionists have a contemporary sensibility,” adds Robison. “That proto-feminism is reflected in their view of the world and the ways in which they express themselves. It’s strong, sassy and provocative.

“I love and admire all of these women. Great characters, big personalities, all of them ahead of their time.”

Eleanor Holdridge is directing The Revolutionists and has been involved with the project since its early stages. “I love that Lauren’s language is both super-contemporary and heightened at the same time, filled with humor, beauty and wit,” says Holdridge. “She channels a sense of history while writing for the present. In I and You, she interwove the words of Walt Whitman; in The Revolutionists, she takes the fervent dreams of four dynamic historical women and creates a stunning voice for them.”

Robison worked with Holdridge when he was producing artistic director of Round House Theatre in Washington, D.C. “She is a fixture in the theatre community there,” he says. “Her work is always daring and thoughtful. Last year, I invited her to submit some ideas for the season, and she sent me an early draft of The Revolutionists, which she’s been developing with the playwright. Her relationship with Lauren and her history with the script will bring our premiere to life in an exciting way.”

“Stories are essential to humanity,” Gunderson says. “Crisis tells us what’s important, and I think in crisis we see how similar we all are … We’re all people, even if some of us are queens or assassins, too.”