The leaders of the French Revolution might have talked a big game about everyone being equal, but the omissions in their motto "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" (liberty, equality, brotherhood) were a definite red flag. Just ask the four very different women who challenge France's Reign of Terror, each in her own way, in Lauren Gunderson's "The Revolutionists."
The comedy/drama is the second show in the Palo Alto Players' 91st season, running through Nov. 21 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. The production will also be presented virtually Nov. 18-21.
The stakes are life and death, but Gunderson somehow finds room for everything from tongue-in-cheek skewerings of "Les Mis" to musings on the meaning of art, with Director Tessa Corrie keeping it steady while embracing Gunderson's deliberate chaos. The fast pace can feel a little wearying at times, but it also suits the turbulent setting.
"The Revolutionists" is highly theatrical both in subject matter and presentation, which is fitting not only for a show set at such a fraught time, but also one pointedly concerned with how stories are told. The show even takes a swipe at the tiredness of the "play within a play" device but eventually dives right into it.
Gabriella Goldstein brings an excitable energy to the character of playwright Olympe de Gouges, whose profession gives the wild story some framing: as we meet Olympe in 1793 in her Paris study, she's primed to write a masterwork on behalf of righteousness, but about what? Olympe is so caught up in having the power of the pen, she doesn't always see its responsibilities, even as three visitors to her study underscore the importance of standing up and making your story heard.
Kimberly Ridgeway imbues spy Marianne Angelle with warmth and determination. Marianne is a leader in the Haitian Revolution, fighting the French colonial forces that enslaved people on the Caribbean island then known as Saint Domingue.
Olympe is Marianne's friend, but her self-absorption renders her infuriatingly clueless in how to support Marianne's cause, despite Marianne often stating exactly how. And Marianne's frustration and heartbreak in the second act is palpable.
A stranger, Charlotte Corday (Katherine Hamilton), comes next, plotting an assassination and seeking a way to be remembered in the process. Hamilton gives us a poignant portrayal of Charlotte's resolve, which doesn't waver even when she's terrified.
Finally, the former queen of France, Marie Antoinette (Olga Molina), comes to Olympe hoping for a bit of image rehab.
The ex-queen arrives in a flurry of ribbons and melodramatic sighs, and Molina often earns some of the show's biggest laughs, but her former majesty also seems to be guarding herself a bit behind her well-publicized frivolity.
The ensemble works well together, creating a sense of distance between women who began largely as strangers, and portraying the sometimes conflicted camaraderie that grows among them.
The characters feel familiar, and not just because they speak in modern vernacular, f-bombs and all. All four women understand the importance of being able to tell one's own story, knowing the greatest power lies in who has the public platform to tell that story and how they frame it. It seems a very contemporary sensibility, particularly as we've all seen the ability of a catchy narrative to sometimes overwhelm all.
The drama is heightened by the beautifully stark palette of Lisa Claybaugh's costumes and Scott Ludwig's set design. They work perfectly with Edward Hunter's lighting and Jeff Grafton's sound design, which pull off some striking effects with nary a drop of stage blood spilled.
Palo Alto Players present "The Revolutionists" through Nov. 21 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto and streaming Nov. 18-21. Tickets are $27-$57 for in-person shows and $20 per household for virtual shows. For more information, visit paplayers.org.
What are the odds?
Over the first weekend in November, Foothill Theatre Arts and Palo Alto Players each opened a play by Lauren Gunderson. What are the chances that two local companies, on the same weekend, would open different plays by the same Bay Area-based playwright? As the production notes from both companies point out, Gunderson is at the moment the most produced living playwright in the U.S., so actually the odds are probably pretty good. But even though companies' seasons tend to be planned well in advance, Gunderson's works speak to the current moment: Both shows highlight the power of storytelling, the importance of bearing witness and celebrate our need for art, which has come into especially sharp relief in recent times when it hasn't been possible to visit theaters in person.