Why THE REVOLUTIONISTS? – Next Act Theatre


There’s no doubt, I’m a Lauren Gunderson fan. We’ve produced four of her plays recently: THE TAMING in 2016 (remember when the beauty queen candidate won the White House?), SILENT SKY (Henrietta Leavitt measures the universe), I AND YOU (two teens bond for one lifetime), and now THE REVOLUTIONISTS (a dream-fugue take on an all-female French Revolution). So, what’s with the Gunderson?

Lauren Gunderson’s heroes are women. I think this, above all other reasons, is why I’m a fan and why I picked this play. Interestingly, in the script’s cast list, Lauren initially describes each of the four women as “badass.” She’s serious about her heroes! Without knowing anything about Olympe DeGouges, the reluctant playwright-activist at the center of Gunderson’s revolutionary romp, I was readily drawn into her artistic and societal struggles, empathizing with her doubts and fears and at last, celebrating her triumphs as an artist and proud member of the world’s sisterhood.

I also like Olympe because she’s a stand-in for playwright Gunderson herself. There’s an unmistakable similarity of voice, bright mind and inquisitiveness in Olympe’s character which I recognize from Lauren’s other plays and her appearance at the Madison Public Library I had the pleasure of attending a few years back. At that gathering, she took the opportunity to read a selection from her very recent script, THE BOOK OF WILL (seen as a reading at Next Act in 2018), where two of Shakespeare’s actors are contemplating the meaning of theatre, sitting on the well-worn boards of the empty and dark Globe stage.

John: Why do we bother with any of it?
Henry: To feel again.
John: I feel enough (says the man who has just lost his dear wife to sudden illness).
Henry: I said to feel again. The faeiries aren’t real, but the feeling is. We play love’s first look and life’s last, here, every day. And you will see yourself in it, or your fear, or your future before the play’s end. And you will test your heart against trouble and joy, and every time you’ll feel a flicker or a fountain of feeling that reminds you that, yes, you are yet living.

I’ve heard many explanations for the purpose of theatre, and tried to formulate some of my own, but Henry’s meditation brings up goose bumps.

What was a tangential inquiry in THE BOOK OF WILL has taken center stage in THE REVOLUTIONISTS. Gunderson puts Olympe through an arduous obstacle course of challenges, creative frustration, fear, inspiration and revelation as she wrestles with the meaning and value of art – specifically, theatre. Responding early on to accusations that theatre is nothing but fiction, and of no help to anyone in need, she says:

It might be fiction, but it’s not fake.

The beating hearts in front of you are real.

The gathering of people is real.

The time we spend together, this time, is real.

The story is real when it starts.

I’ve written before that the actor’s art is often equated with lying. The comparison is in itself, a lie, clearly an opinion held by those who are as yet innocent of the power of the ancient art of storytelling which emanates from actors, on wooden planks, in a darkened room, to a gathering of inquisitive minds and open hearts. Under those exquisite conditions, the actors’ deep-seated grasp of character and circumstance intertwines with the willingness of humans to imagine and believe, and miraculously, truth appears. It’s the nature, the power of theatre. Fiction, not fake.

Another admirable Gunderson trademark, very much present in THE REVOLUTIONISTS, is her deft touch when it comes to touchy subjects. Her characters draw you in with their ebullient presence and smart repartee, and then suddenly one of them will emit the flash of an idea, a flip-sting comment, or a profound and challenging truth which hangs in the air, impossible to miss or avoid. But then, onward; Gunderson propels you forward, and as you stay alert to the journey, the energy of her editorials is storing up, to be released and processed as the play is freshly remembered. Here are a couple of tidbits:

… a good deed needs a good story or else it might vanish like nothing. ever. happened.

…let us laugh, and laugh too loudly and too often, and call out the hypocrites of our age until they are the butt of the joke.

I mean, you can’t kill the writers — that’s Democracy 101!

As she writes in her script notes, “The play is based on real women, real transcripts and real executions. But remember it’s a comedy.” And under Gunderson’s masterful supervision, that comedy is realized along with a deeply-felt exploration – no, celebration – of the strength, resilience and generosity of the better half of this planet’s population.

Vive les femmes!