The latest production from City Theatre presents a fresh, woman-centric spin on the tumult of the French Revolution. But there’s an amazing true story behind the big costumes, comedy, and music of The Revolutionists.
The show marks the Pittsburgh debut of Lauren Gunderson, now considered the most produced playwright in the country. She started work on The Revolutionists in 2012 after an inspiring trip to Paris, where she happened upon a reference to early feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges in the footnotes of a Wikipedia article.
“It just stopped me instantly,” Gunderson says. “I thought, ‘What? She’s a feminist playwright? What did that even mean back then?’”
Set in 1793, The Revolutionists presents a revisionist historical narrative where de Gouges crosses paths with two other important women from the era, Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday. Though lesser known, Corday rivals Antoinette in terms of notoriety as the assassin of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat. The story goes that Corday — who posthumously earned the badass nickname l'ange de l'assassinat, or the Angel of Assassination, for her crime — stabbed Marat as he bathed.
Gunderson also added Marianne Angelle, a fictional Caribbean spy fighting against French occupation in the West Indies. The character was created from an amalgam of Black revolutionary women either forgotten or underrepresented by history, including those involved in the 1790s rebellion in Saint-Domingue, what is now known as Haiti.
Despite the serious subject matter, Gunderson describes the play as “a big, boisterous feminist comedy” with knowing jokes poking fun at Les Misérables. That being said, things do get real in the second act.
“This is about the French Revolution and one of the characters is Marie Antoinette,” she hints. “You might have a sense of what’s happening and what we might be aiming for, at least for that character.” (If any mystery still remains, the Pittsburgh production’s set design includes a guillotine.)
Although Gunderson started writing the play six years ago, she believes it very much relates to the social and political upheaval people are experiencing today, including the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
“We’re talking about the divide between the rich and poor. We’re talking about a mistrust of power, and the misapplication or abandonment of justice. We’re talking about extremism and violence. And those are all the things we’re in the thrust of in America, certainly right now,” says Gunderson.
She also views The Revolutionists as examining the role of art when a country is in crisis, a topic most aligned with de Gouges, who was executed when revolutionaries discovered an unfinished play they believed proved her support for the monarchy.
While the play does feature an all-female cast, Gunderson emphasizes that, “it’s not just a play for women”
“I feel bad that I even have to specify that,” she says. “Women’s stories are actually universal stories. … Hopefully you’ll walk away with your heart working overtime.”
Sat., Sept. 8 – Sun., Sept. 30. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. Single tickets start at $29; $15 for guests under 30 in advance. citytheatrecompany.org