The Revolutionists a well-acted performance of activism

While its script is lacking in some places, the show at Persephone Theater is bolstered by strong performances and excellent design work.

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As the French Revolution rages outside, four women take a moment with each other.

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Persephone Theatre’s production of The Revolutionists sees four figures of the revolution try to wrest control back from a world that has stripped them of their equilibrium as it violently changes around them.

Charlotte Corday (Kathleen MacLean), Marie Antoinette and Haitian rebel Marianne Angelle have come to playwright Olympe de Gouges’ (Elizabeth Nepjuk) flat, seeking to tap into her writing abilities to further their causes. Aside from Marianne’s, the inquiries are at first transactional, but the four women settle into a comfortable groove with each other and stay put.

In the middle of a discussion about what France has become, Marie (Anita Smith) likes the nation to an ingenue, tied to the train tracks and powerlessly facing down her demise.

She then turns to the audience and asks, “What are trains?”

It’s a scene that captures the essence of American playwright Lauren Gunderson’s script, engaging era-appropriate philosophical discussion with comedic asides to its modern audience. When applied to the show’s politics, that mix of past and present doesn’t always mesh. Its attempts to ascribe 21st-century feminism to the period have varied results.

Characters make great statements — about the period, its politics, feminism, the value of art and of found family — but the message at its core isn’t easily parsed.

The Revolutionists explore the power of the written word during the revolution, and how controlling the means of information transmission meant swaying public opinion — and fervour. It also looks at who had easier access to informing that narrative, and who was pushed to the sidelines.

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In that vein, Olympe becomes a stand-in for the historical record. Who is her writing of her benefitting? Aside from gender, how do class and race factor into that? It’s a question the script skirts around addressing directly.

At one point Marianne tells Olympe the importance of fulfilling her request for pamphlets and sharing her story: “No one writes me down.” With that in mind, one has to wonder why Gunderson opted to make Marianne a composite character when there are indeed real-world, documented examples of female Haitian revolution figures.

Or why her push for Olympe to write pamphlets about abolition is ultimately forgotten and forgiven because Olympe “shows up” for Marie by being present to document her execution. That said, Chiamaka Glory’s performance fills Marianne with complexity and vulnerability as she brings life to the ideals of the women she’s based upon.

The play’s first act has all the trappings of a girl-power sitcom. There are jokes, quips, looks to camera and the quintessential appearance of characters in door frames, to fanfare. By the second act the script finds its footing and more nuance, shifting into a more intimate character study with strong performances.

Persephone has provided a lavish and thoughtfully-created environment for the action, starting with powerful performances from all four performers. Nepjuk grants Olympe’s emotional turmoil lasting power as her curtain slowly descends. MacLean’s Charlotte has warmth and youthful uncertainty, despite the finality of her actions.

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Smith’s Marie is genuinely funny and tender, deftly handling childlike mannerisms.

Beautiful, detailed costumes from Jensine Emeline work to flesh them out, from Olympe’s ink-stained apron to the way Marie’s skyscraper wig bobs as she stomps around the flat. Carla Orosz’s set is impressive in its design and versatility, especially as it shifts and transforms under Judith Schulz’s evocative lighting design.

And It speaks to Darren Miller’s sound work that we don’t see the guillotine, but feel its impact nonetheless as the blade’s singing reverberates throughout the theater when it all comes to close.

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