City Theater’s The Revolutionists is a wonderfully relevant work of art

By September 17, 2018 No Comments

“If I wasn’t so afraid of needles I’d probably get their head shots tattooed on my person.”

Photo Courtesy of City Theater

It’s the craziest thing but the other day I saw an American Express TV commercial starring Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda! Then I read in the City Theatre program for The Revolutionists that Lauren M Gunderson, the show’s author, is the most produced playwright in America. Little wonder. If you were looking for a piece of art perfectly reflecting the #MeToo Resistance you couldn’t find anything more on point than The Revolutionists.

Good God, is theater becoming … relevant? Happy news, certainly, but what the hell do I do with all my Ethel Merman records?

Gunderson has written a whole lot of plays and jammed them all together into a very full-length work set in Paris during the “Reign of Terror” telling the story of, well, everything!

The Revolutionists continues through September 30. City Theatre, South Side. 412/431-CITY.

There were three women from that time you may or may not have heard of. Most famous is Marie “Let them eat cake” Antoinette. You might know Charlotte Corday who stabbed journalist Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub. The one you’ve probably don’t know is Olympe de Gouges, an abolitionist, feminist, pamphleteer and playwright. To these real women, Gunderson adds a fictional fourth; Marianne Angelle based on “Marianne” the Spirit of the Revolution and a former slave from the French colony Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).

All four are true revolutionaries fighting against a lethal system fueled by racism, capital exploitation and, most importantly, misogynistic paternalism. They end up at Olympe’s place because they need her writing skills; Marianne wants pamphlets to illuminate her cause, Charlotte wants Olympe to write the last words she’ll say when she’s executed and Marie would like a play written about her to help rehabilitate her public image.

Also, not inconsequentially, all four are eventually beheaded thanks to “Madame Guillotine.” The three real women were killed and, if you think about the aftermath of the Revolution, the hope and promise represented by Marianne was killed as well.

So take THAT!, tiny plays about suburban infidelity and musicals with more set than sense. The Revolutionists is brimming over with ideas, debate, dialectics and even philosophical supposition on life, conflict and maybe the idea that even if women don’t have the answer they could possibly lead us to it.

On the other hand it is also possible to say that there’s far too much stuff for the script to function as a tightly written, lucid work for the theater. (Though that may not have been Gunderson’s intent.) It takes a long time for the show to “begin” and there are several sections filled with inside theater jokes far too self-aware and twee to be as funny as Gunderson imagines.

On Anne Mundell’s gorgeous set and wearing Susan Tsu’s sumptuous costumes, director Jade King Carroll guides four actresses of remarkable accomplishment through this three-ring circus of a play.

Perhaps in a nod to the presentational acting of the period, Carroll goes for a “face front and declaim” style – an artistically impeccable choice, but it stopples the comedy. However, when Gunderson moves past the meta-theatrical hijinks and gets to actual drama, thanks to Carroll’s intelligence and talent there is an overabundance of breathtaking moments on stage.

Now, about those femmes — Daina Michelle Griffith (Olympe,) Shamika Cotton (Marianne,) Moira Quigley (Charlotte) and Drew Leigh Williams (Marie) … if I wasn’t so afraid of needles I’d probably get their head shots tattooed on my person. There’s a certain relentless drive to the show, like one of those tunnel drills boring through a mountain, and these four plow through the work with determination and an absolute sense of purpose. It seems like there’s nothing Gunderson throws at them that they can’t handle. A hard job done well.

Ted Hoover is the Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic. Email him at

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