By Sheri Berger
I love history. I love stories about history, even when they fill in the gaps with fictional elements. This is a creative story about real historical ladies who probably didn’t meet in real life, but you don’t need to dust off your history books to enjoy this play. I love seeing talented young adults bring their electric energy to the process of telling a meaningful story.
Theatrix’s production of The Revolutionists embraces these historical stories and makes them their own. The play, written by America’s most produced living playwright, Lauren Gunderson, echoes powerful female voices from the past. Four women, one of them a fictional embodiment of many women, and three of them real-life historical figures of the French Revolution (1787-1799), convene together for a short stretch in 1793 to battle the tumultuous time in which they live. As people from any volatile time in history, these women experience the same things, but with their own unique perspectives and experiences, much as we do in our own times.
Gunderson’s play begins as a lighthearted comedy, introducing the plight of each of our characters. The play centers around Olympe de Gouges, who is a playwright, lover of theatre and drama, and activist trying to “write a revolutionary play during a revolution.” Her friend, Marianne Angelle (Aeris Esterly-Tilmon), is a free woman of color from the Caribbean who urges Olympe to write more about the necessity of freedom for slaves following the 1791 revolt in Saint-Domingue. In real life, Olympe is famous for writing The Slavery of the Blacks (1788).
Marrianne is often the moral compass for the other characters, and the most empathetic of the four, at one point remarking that “a Revolution needs a woman’s touch.” Aeris shows an impressive range, from a tenaciously strong woman of conviction, to a warm woman of compassion who shares her most vulnerable moments and emotions.
Charlotte Corday (Calli Mah) is a woman who plots to kill a divisive journalist and politician, Jean-Paul Marat, and believes his death will save hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. Charlotte wants Olympe to write about her reasons so that history will know the truth about why she killed him. At one point Charlotte makes the comment that she came to Olympe for help because “theatre people are so loose,” and she had been taught by nuns that “theatre was the devil’s art.” Charlotte is afraid historians will write about her as a jilted lover, somehow romantically influenced. The play mentions that Charlotte was “verified” to be a virgin while in prison awaiting execution, and in reality, that verification was done after she had been killed. It was as if the story of a woman killing a man had to be a crime of passion, and not a political one. Calli Mah, the Theatre Performance Sophomore who plays Charlotte, portrayed her character with spitfire passion, completely resolved that her course was correct. Though the play shows only a little questioning of her decision, overall she knew it was her fate.
The most notable character, Marie Antionette (Bailey Jane), is a deposed Queen who worries about how she will be remembered, and wants Olympe to help write her legacy in a positive light. UNL Senior Bailey Jane is perfectly cast and plays the beautiful Marie Antoinette with ease. Her acting brings a certain unspoken endearment to the doomed queen. Her character is poised, out-of-touch, quirky, and a fan of ribbons. However, there is definitive tension between Marie and Marianne in the beginning of the play. The obvious difference between extreme privilege and extreme struggle is apparent, but in the Second Act they make a real, though awkward, connection which is touching and gives a hopeful flavor to Marie that perhaps she had more depth than history gives her credit for, despite the fact that the real queen did enslave people.
Olympe, played by the third-year acting major Hannah Mason, provides the throughline of the story and functions as a home base for the characters. Hannah portrays Olympe as a bit funny and haughty, but also genuine and unsure of herself; a writer battling with writer’s-block. The Olympe of the play, as in real life, advocates for women’s rights, people of color, and divorce. But she also loved the theatre, and in one particular line tells her compatriots that “theatre people don’t quote, they embellish.”
At one point Olympe responds to the “Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen,” the 1789 document constructed by France’s National Constituent Assembly, with her pamphlet the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.” This is the source of her famous and often-quoted statement “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold,” (referring specifically to the guillotine,) “She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.” Olympe addresses the Assembly and they mock and laugh at her. Gunderson writes a funny yet poignant line for Olympe’s response to their mockery: “What good is declaration if everyone agrees?”
By the end of the show there is a fifth character introduced as we the audience become part of the play. These characters do not survive their time and their circumstances, but their story and their beliefs in equality and equal treatment survive through us. History writes about others much less worthy as a signal of their time, nevertheless their stories are still out there for us to hear and amplify. That makes us, as the audience and as citizens of a democracy, an ongoing part of their story.
All in all, this play is a punchy, fast-paced show with a lot of heart. The First Act establishes a connection with the four women, as the actors meld into their characters. The Second Act is darker, and portrays the painfully real plight of all women of this time trying to navigate a society led by small minds, and their sometimes outright oppressive governments.
The Revolutionists was directed by Francoise Traxler, a Senior Theatre Performance major at UNL. She did a wonderful job directing her first full-length play. Artistic Director Philip Crawford, and Hannah Mason, working overtime for this production as Managing Director in addition to Olympe, together with their team, picked a wonderful play to coincide with their season theme, “Rewrite the Narrative.”
Costume Designer Paige Moeller and Wardrobe Supervisor Shay Jowers put together costumes that are both beautiful and era-appropriate.
The set was perfectly simple, with little futuristic touches of paint and lighting which were very appropriate for the play. Lighting Design was done by Francisco Hermosillo III; Lighting Operator, Leo Monardo; Scenic Design was done by Anna Schwartz. Properties were assembled by Abi Green, and Sound Design by Mo Benes. The play is Stage Managed by Olivia Schmitz, with John Hutchinson as Assistant Stage Manager. Liz Benitez Lopez, Hannah Shelby, and Evan Mcfadden fill out the Run Crew.
Theatrix is a student-run theatre company in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.
If you go: There are a few more chances to catch this thought-provoking play: November 5th at 7:30PM and November 7th at 2pm and 7:30PM in the Lab Theatre, located on the third floor of the Temple Building at 12th and R Street in Lincoln. Tickets available at https://unltheatretickets.universitytickets.com or at the door (cash only), $7 for General Admission and $5 for Students. Note for parents: this show contains some mature themes and language.
Sheri Berger is a business minion, dog momma, arts groupie, and co-host of the Platte River Bard Podcast with her husband, Chris Berger.
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