🎭 Who Tells The Story | “The Revolutionists” @ Mercury Players Theatre/The Bartell

The Revolutionists (Mercury Players Theatre/The Bartell)I’m a firm believer that being on travel shouldn’t stop a habit obsession of attending live theatre. We’ve seen the musical Aida in Portland OR, attended the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and seen Evita in Maui. So a trip to Madison WI to visit my daughter shouldn’t interrupt going to see a show. And it didn’t. Last night, my daughter picked The Revolutionists, a play by Lauren Gunderson (who everyone loves to note is the most produced playwright in America), which was in its final weekend at The Bartell Theatre in downtown Madison WI. The Bartell is home to six theatre companies, one of which is the Mercury Players Theatre, who produced this show. Although I hadn’t realized it at the time, we’ve seen Gunderson’s work before, back in May 2019: Ada and the Engine, one of her science themed plays, which was presented by  Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage), topping a weekend where there was a lot of emphasis about women and their agency (it was also the Purim carnival, and we had just seen Matilda The Musical).

Perhaps women and their agency is a running theme of Gunderson in her work. I don’t know for sure, but at least in our small sample of two plays, both have focused on the agency of women, and telling the story of significant women. The Revolutionists is no different. It focuses on the lives (and ultimately, the deaths) of four women: three of whom are real, and one who is a composite. The real women are Olympe de Gouges, Charlotte Corday, and Marie Antoinette; the composite was called Marianne Angell, a composite of the symbol for Republican France and various female Black abolitionists from the French colonies.

The center of the play, at least when it starts, is Mme. de Gouges (Olympe), who is a playwright. One by one the other women come to her, wanting her to help them with some writing assignment or another. Marianne wants pamphlets written to support the cause of abolitionists. Charlotte wants someone to write her last words — the words she will say just before they guillotine her. Marie Antoinette wants a play written about her, one that will make her sympathetic to the Jacobins in charge of the revolution so that they will spare her life.

Beyond this beginning, and the end (which is preordained, because we know what happened historically), the rest is a bit of a confusing jumble that doesn’t start to come together until after the intermission. As I went into this play, I was expecting something on the order of Meeting of Minds, the Steve Allen series that had people of different periods coming together for us to learn about. But as the play started, what I got instead was a women searching for a way around her writer’s block. Jumping from idea to idea to figure out the way to find a story to outlast here. It was at times [title of show], at times Something Rotten, and even a bit of Les Miz.  One might even toss in a bit of the $5 Shakespeare Company. It even delved into some of the areas of What the Constitution Means to Me. But it certainly wasn’t the historical play I was expecting. Working against the historical aspect of the play was the playwright’s choice of language. For a while I thought that might have been a directoral choice, but reading other reviews in other cities made it clear this was Gunderson’s voice. She was having these historical characters using modern idioms and slang, and referencing modern events. She even had Marianne Angell using a dialect of a form of Jive, which I found problematic in a number of ways (it always seems to be a problem when a white author attempts to make characters sound like people of color). The modern phrasing was jarring and just added to the confusion. It also didn’t help that the personalities of the figures were also broadly drawn: Marie Antoinette had a distinctly grating, whining, and overly-privileged personality; Olympe couldn’t make up her mind and was indecisive; Corday was strident and angry. Perhaps the best drawn was the composite, Marianne, who showed both emotion and concern for the others.

But by the second half of the show, the characters began to coalesce and find their voices in a better way. Perhaps they became more comfortable with themselves. Whatever the reason, we began to see their stories more, and their fragility. We began to learn that the point of the play had two key aspects: not only having your story told to future generations, but having control over who tells the story. The conventional story we hear about the three real characters — de Gouges, Corday, and Marie Antoinette — was ultimately told by the white men that had killed them. How different would their stories had been if they had been told from the point of view of women, and they were presented as women trying to do the best women could do in the society they were in. We ultimately see that the center of the play was less de Gouges, and more Angell. It is Angell that ultimately is the one telling this story, as it is Angell who is the one that survived.

So, considering the story aspect, this show is at the 70% level. Ultimately, it redeems itself, but the self-referential aspect, the modern jargon, and the meta aspects of the play ultimately hurt the point that is being tried to be made.

As I noted before, I had been unsure whether the problems with the modern dialog were just an affectation from the director, Sean Langenecker. It turns out they weren’t, but there are some dialogue issues that the director does need to address. Specifically, in the opening scenes, the actors seem to be talking very fast. This seems to slow down slightly as the production goes on, so I think it was just opening scene coldness (a problem common with speakers). That’s something that can be addressed through practice and notes. Otherwise, I think Langenecker did a good job of bringing the different characters to life, although at times there seemed a touch of overdrawing them (although that could have been in the script). Movements and such seemed realistic, although that is not an inkwell. It was much too wide.

Looking at the specific performances: All were strong, especially considering the regional nature of the cast. Stephanie Monday Olympe de Gouges captured the indecisiveness of de Gouges well, and presented a wonderful range of emotions over the show while dealing with all the characters. Jessica Jane Witham (FB) Marie Antoinette did a great job of capturing the annoying aspects of the Queen’s personality, as well as presenting the touching side. Perhaps the smallest portion went to Mikayla Mrocheck Charlotte Corday, who received less stage time, but still did a great job of capturing the anger behind Corday.

That leaves Laura Jo McMillan Marianne Angell. who I’m singling out not only for her strong performance, but for her lovely voice on the one song that she had. I was less enamored with the slight accent and jivish voice she gave to the character, but that might have been directed by the script. It gave the impression of trying to convey race through accent and voice — something I’m finding increasingly problematic — and something that was less than historically accurate.

On the production side: the set was a simple one: a table, a sofa, a platform, and some curtains. It provided just enough context to provide a sense of where and when one was. The costumes provided more of a sense of time for the most part, although the visible tattoos at the end (although understandable in today’s society) were a reminder that these were modern actresses, not historical figures. Given they could have been easily addressed via a simple shift (also historically accurate)… The sound effects were reasonable, although the timing was a bit off at times. Production credits: Kat Thompson Stage Manager; Spike Garrett (FB) Lighting Design; Lizzie Opperman (FB) Asst. Lighting Design; Marie Schulte Costume Design; Laura Yoccum Marie Antoinette Wig; Dawn Marie Svanoe (FB) Marie Antoinette Headpiece; Cassie Carney Hair and Makeup Assistant; Evan Lange and Erin McConnell Sound Design; Sean Langenecker Set Design; Sean Langenecker Properties Design; Jeff Godsey Dramaturg; Sean Langenecker and Megan McGlone Producers.

One additional note: This is one of the few shows I’ve seen that had absolutely no pre-show announcement: no pointing out of the exits, no reminder to unwrap those noisy hard candies (a point that is made during the show itself), and most importantly: no reminder to turn off your cell phones and things that might create light or noise. They need the reminder.

There is one more performance of The Revolutionists at the Bartell Theatre in downtown Madison WI: today at 2pm. Tickets available at the door, or through the Bartell website. I don’t think Goldstar covers Madison WI. If you are closer to my home (in Southern California), and the show sounds of interest, the Santa Paula Theatre Center has just opened a production of it. It runs through March 15, and tickets are available through the SPTC website. For the Santa Paula show, discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) [2020-2021 season] and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.

Upcoming Shows:

Tonight, the plans are to go see the Lee Blessing play Down The Road from Two Crows Theatre Company, with Sunday being MST 3000 at the Overture downtown. Whew! Alas, I’ll be missing both Nefesh Mountain at Temple Israel of Hollywood and Tom Paxton and the Don Juans at McCabes, who are performing tonight, due to this.

March starts with Passion at Boston Court (FB) the first weekend. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner (and The Wild Party at Morgan Wixson). The 3rd brings Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last weekend brings Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) (and possibly Hands on a Hardbody at the Charles Stewart Howard Playhouse (FB)), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB). The second weekend of May brings a concert performance of Randy Newman’s Faust at the Soraya/VPAC (FB). The third weekend of May brings A Man of No Importance at Actors Co-op (FB) . The fourth and fifth weekends are currently open, but I”m eyeing a production at the Fountain Theatre for our synagogue’s live theatre group during that time.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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