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The Revolutionists
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
June 29, 2019

Jenni Ryan, Kimmie Kidd, Laurie McConnell
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre is continuing its latest season with a play by one of today’s most recognized playwrights. Lauren Gunderson’s plays have been performed by many theatre companies around the country, and in St. Louis lately, including Insight who last year was one of two local professional companies who presented Gunderson’s Silent Sky. This time, the featured show is The Revolutionists, a four-woman play that presents itself as a comedy, but has some striking dramatic twists.

The play, like other Gunderson plays I’ve seen, has a structure in which character interactions are crucial. There’s a plot, revolving around the French Revolution and specifically the Reign of Terror, and some prominent figures from that time, along with a fictional character who is something of a composite. The central figure is early feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges (Jenni Ryan), who as the play begins is struggling with how to continue her latest work-in-progress. As she struggles with style, story, dramatic form, and the purpose of her play, she comes into contact with other women who challenge her perspective. These women include determined assassin Charlotte Corday (Samantha Auch) and conflicted former Queen Marie Antoinette (Laurie McConnell), as well as Haitian activist Marianne Angelle, who is fighting to end slavery in her home country, which was then under French rule. The women share their stories and struggles with one another, encouraging Olympe to own up to her own convictions and not give into fear. Although the setting is specific, the situations and structure make the conflict more universal. It’s about France, but it also isn’t. Essentially, it’s about standing up for what one believes in, and about women making their voices heard. The interplay between the characters and witty, pointedly contemporary dialogue serve to make this show both compelling and relatable, with well-drawn characters and some fun “meta” moments thrown in along with some poignancy and an increasingly dramatic tone as the story plays out.

It’s a play essentially about the French Revolution, but it’s also “out of time” in important ways, such as language and the way in which the characters relate to one another, which is decidedly modern. It also has aspects that remind me of another Gunderson play, I and You, in some key ways that will become apparent to those who have seen both plays (although these stories are very different in other ways). The presentation of the show is unconventional, in a way, in that it’s especially minimalist, with a set by Leah McFall that consists entirely of a few period-specific furniture pieces that are used to set the tone and mood, but with the simplicity of the space highlighting the experimental tone of the play. It’s presented in the round, as well, which works especially well for the small-ish space at the Marcelle. Also of note are the costumes by Julian King, which are richly detailed and which help to emphasize the differences in situation between the characters. There’s also excellent use of lighting by Morgan Brennan that adds drama in some key scenes, and sound by Bob Schmit that provides essential context for the piece.

Even with its excellent technical aspects, the biggest asset of this production is its superb cast, led by Ryan in an impressively relatable turn as the show’s main viewpoint character, Olympe. In the midst of conflict and challenge, Ryan makes Olympe’s concerns and fears credible. She also shows strong chemistry with her castmates, who also give memorable performances. McConnell, as probably the best known character in the play, is especially strong, bringing a sense of real depth to a character who is portrayed as more complex than popular history has often painted her. It’s a winning portrayal. Kidd, as the idealistic Marianne, is also a strong presence, as is Auch in an intense portrayal as the single-minded Charlotte. It’s a impressive cast all-around, with excellent energy and rapport.

This is a play I didn’t know much about before seeing it, except for knowing a little about the history and having seen some of the playwright’s other plays. Overall, I think The Revolutionists holds up with Gunderson’s best work. It may not be the most detailed in terms of history, but I don’t think it’s trying to be. It’s more about the characters and the points they are making, which revolve around women maintaining the courage of their convictions. At Insight, it’s a dynamically staged, impeccably cast production that’s sure to provoke some compelling conversations. It’s definitely one to check out.

Jenni Ryan, Samantha Auch, Kimmie Kidd
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theater Company is presenting The Revolutionists at the Marcelle Theatre until July 14, 2019

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