Updated: Jun 22
The Revolution Has (Finally) Been Feminized
By Joel Beers
Uproarious comedy isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of the French Revolution. Hard to do stand-up with so many heads being sliced off by the guillotine.
The oddity of so much humor in a play about one of the bloodiest periods in European history certainly caught the attention of Amanda Hallman, who directs “The Revolutionists” at the Brea Curtis Theatre beginning June 16, when she first read the 2018 piece. But what got her directorial juices flowing was the presence of something just as foreign in most accounts of history.
It wasn’t history. It was herstory. Four herstories to be precise.
Gunderson’s play focuses on four women, three of whom may be familiar to those whose knowledge of the French Revolution goes a bit deeper than “Les Mis” but who, like most women in most historical narratives, are marginalized, overlooked or just plain forgotten.
The most known is Marie Antoinette, she of the “let them eat cake” mic drop, and the queen of Louis XVI, the first power to topple in the 10-year revolution. Next in notoriety would be Charlotte Corday, immortalized in painting, poetry, prose, plays and most importantly, video games, for assassinating the radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat. Olympe de Gouges, a playwright and passionate anti-slavery and women’s rights advocate is the third historical figure. Rounding out the quartet is the lone imagined character, Marianne Angelle, a free Black woman from San Domingue in the Caribbean, a slave colony of France.
The four women converge in de Gouges' study in 1793, during the aforementioned Reign of Terror, four years into the revolution, having grown increasingly disenchanted with its course. Extremists abound on all fronts; the lofty slogans of liberty and equality seem focused solely on white men; and though women have played an instrumental role in the revolution, they feel increasingly pushed to the sidelines.
So the three visitors have all called on the playwright de Gouges to write them something.
Marianne, the fervent revolutionary, wants her to write a manifesto denouncing the hypocrisy of “The French…fighting a revolution for freedom while running a slave colony in the west”; Corday wants a killer exit line after she stabs Marat; Antoinette would like a rewrite of history in which she doesn’t come off as callous and elitist.
And what does de Gouges want? She wants to write a play about “women showing the boys how revolutions are done."
On a Tumblr page created by the playwright, Gunderson describes each of the four women as “bad-ass.” Hallman does not disagree. It was the fact that “this is a story about four very powerful women who have chosen to be sisters,” that first engaged her upon reading it. But what made Hallman feel like she had to direct it wasn’t just that these women were powerful; it’s that the cracks in the armor that gird them were so apparent. And that made them bad-ass, for sure, but also real.
“They are all incredible human beings, passionate, brave, funny, smart but also flawed,” Hallman says. “And I love that aspect. They speak their ideals and believe what they believe but they can be contradictory. And that’s what (playwright Gunderson) does so brilliantly. She captures humanity in a very real way in her understanding that life is not a linear journey.”
Plus, she adds, “it’s hysterically funny and just wild.”
That humor was the first thing that Kristofer Kataoka, the Curtis’ manager and artistic director, noticed about the play.
“That’s not something you immediately equate with the French Revolution,” he said. But he was also struck by the parallels between late 18th Century France and 2020s America: extremism on all fronts; the widening gap between the rich and the poor; journalist pundits fanning the flames.
“The way she draws that line between then and now is something that smacks you in the face at times, like a wake-up call,” Kataoka said.
“The Revolutionists” is decidedly contemporary on another front: its feminist stance.
Gunderson, who has topped the list of most produced American playwrights twice in the past five years, is an incredibly prolific playwright; but she, much like de Gouges in the play, is also an activist playwright. She has used the stage as a platform to support progressive political candidates as well as launch a nationwide campaign against gun violence. But as her website’s landing page makes it abundantly clear (Playwright; Screenwriter; Feminist) it is championing women, largely through plays about female historical figures whose remarkable stories have not been told nearly as much as those of men told by men, that is her primary focus.
That’s readily apparent in “The Revolutionists” as with the specter of the guillotine haunting each of them, the four women decide to write a play about women’s rights.
“The play is about the power of women coming together in the face of extremism,” Hallman says, “ and still fighting for what they believe in despite the ramifications they might face and (raises the question of) how we all personally choose the way we fight for what we believe in.
Though this production runs only two weekends, by the time it closes, it will mark nearly 18 months of being at the forefront of Hallman’s creative and scholastic mind. In April 2022, she directed it at Loyola Marymount University as part of her graduate thesis project. The upcoming show is a direct result of that production, as one of the people Hallman reached out to for technical help was a longtime friend of hers from her time at Fullerton College in the early 2000s: the Curtis’ Kataoka.
While Hallman said she was immensely pleased by her graduate production, in which she worked with four young undergraduate actors but had little assistance other than what she could put together, the production at the Curtis has been a dream because of the creative team assembled. It’s a co-production between the Curtis and a company that Hallman and Aja Bell co-founded last year: ‘Begins and Ends with 'A' Productions, and Hallman has been able to bring Bell in as costume designer (the two will host a reception and talkback about the costumes of this production between the matinee and evening performances on the first Saturday of the run) while the Curtis has matched her up with set designer Cari Noel, lighting designer Heather Harless, and projections designer Jonathan Infante.
Add four superlative actors who have collaborated every step of the way, and Hallman said she is confident that this production of “The Revolutionists” will be as “thrilling and fulfilling” as her graduate project.
And then she’s done.
“Oh, I’d maybe revisit it again sometime, but after this production, I think I’ve told the story the way I’ve wanted to tell it. Besides, Lauren Gunderson has many plays and I’d love to do any number of them.”
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist based in Orange County.. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
1 Civic Center Circle, Brea CA
June 16-25, 2023
(714) 990-7729, www.curtistheatre.com