Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Review of "The Revolutionists"

Walking out of The Revolutionists, the outrageous, gloriously funny, and terrifically acted show at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, I thought of the opening line from the Monty Python’s Flying Circus television show—“And now for something completely different…”  This is a show that is unique, unexpected, and breath of fresh air in a mostly lackluster theater season.

Taking place during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, the playwright Lauren Gunderson has delivered a fast-paced, dizzying array of comedic dialogue, laugh-out-loud one-liners, as well as thoughtful meditations on the power and necessity of the Arts, the potential of the spoken and written word, self-sacrifice, freedom from tyranny, equality for women and, simply, hope.  The four richly embroidered characters don’t just recite their lines, but attack them with a combined gleeful vengeance and unswerving forcefulness. 

The show starts off with the playwright Olympe De Gouges in her writing salon thinking of something new to produce.  A knock at her door, and in walks her friend, Marianne Angelle, a Caribbean freedom fighter pursuing justice for her homeland.  She is seeking De Gouges to write pamphlets or a play highlighting the struggle of her island brethren against the French rule.  The two converse and bicker over Marianne’s request, with the activist definitively declaring no musicals and no puppets.  Suddenly, another knock, and in walks in a highly charged Charlotte Cordey, intent on murdering the journalist Jean-Paul Marat and beseeching the playwright to construct some great final words.  As the, now, threesome begin to squabble and cross swords, a final knock at the door reveals none other than Marie Antoinette, in all her regal splendor.  The queen adds to the comic and biting repartee before the mood of the show takes a serious and more somber turn.  Cordey exits, her fate sealed.  Then Marie Antoinette, and finally De Gouges, with Angelle, alone, shattered by news from home.

Sarah Hartmann directs an energetic and fully engaged cast that works so well together.  She balances the cheeky and droll spiritedness with the more solemn and disheartening conclusion.  The director skillfully keeps the liveliness on stage from becoming too chaotic or veering out-of-control.  Her staging of the execution scenes are handled with imagination and restraint.

The four women who make up the cast are superb and make for a winning ensemble.  They are funny, witty, but can also be deadly serious.  They are led by Rebecca Hart, who made such a madcap appearance at Theaterworks’ Midsummer a few seasons back.  As the playwright Olympe De Gouges, she is the focal point and driving force for the narrative.  Her talents are perfectly suited for De Gouges’ seemingly stream-of-conscious banter and screwball, but purposeful, digressions.  Erin Roche’s portrayal of Marianne Angelle, is the most serious of the quartet of performers.  The actress conveys an urgency and focus for her mission, but also exudes a tender vulnerability and compassion to her compatriots.  Jennifer Holcombe pulls off the very difficult assignment of portraying Marie Antoinette as, at first, a vapid Queen of France but, as the play progresses, a sympathetic, thoughtful and, finally, tragic character.  Olivia Jampol’s portrayal of the murderess Charlotte Cordey, is not as layered or nuanced as the other three actresses.  Still, her determination and single-mindedness serves as a beacon that propels the early action in the 90 minute, intermission-less production.

Scenic Designer David Lewis’ slightly elevated performing space gives the production a play-within-a-play quality.  The singular door at the back of the stage portends various degrees of expectations—both welcoming and ominous.

Kate Bunce’s Costume Designs are historically accurate and, with Ms. Antoinette’s garb, wonderfully whimsical.

One last note is to commend Playhouse on Park for staging The Revolutionists, an ambitious and potentially risky undertaking for a small acting company.  But the reward for audience members willing to expand their theatrical horizons is a thrilling joyride, an exhilarating and absorbing work of theater. 

The Revolutionists, playing through March 10th.

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