The Revolutionists will not be televised. You’ll have to put down the remote, tablet, laptop or phone and get your unplugged self to the Dairy Arts Center. There, seated stadium-style in the comfy confines of the Dairy’s Grace Gamm Theater, perhaps with a glass of wine or beer in hand, you will be treated to the spectacle of four living, breathing human women gesticulating and pontificating, moving and, yes, shaking, mere feet in front of your face. Not through a screen, not via beam, not on your couch (but you can still slouch).
Those four women and the characters they play, however, are no slouches. Olympe de Gouges was a feminist, activist and playwright who advocated for, among other things, equal rights for women. Charlotte Corday knowingly sacrificed her own life in the name of her convictions when she assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, the Jacobin supporter and spiritual kin to Bill O’Reilly, during the Reign of Terror. Marie Antoinette may not have actually uttered her most frequently quoted snark, “Let them eat cake,” but she was a literally and figuratively empowered woman who lived without apology. Unlike her three counterparts, Marianne Angelle is not a figure from history but rather an amalgamation of fierce women who fought to end slavery and for equality for people of color in Saint-Domingue (which is Haiti today) and all of the French Republic.
The central conceit of The Revolutionists is that de Gouges is struggling to write a play, a play that will not only bolster her reputation as a playwright but that will also strike a blow for freedom and live on indelibly as her legacy. There to challenge her and inspire her in equal parts are Angelle, Corday and Antoinette. As different as the women may be in age, race and background, their yearning for liberté, égalité and sororité unites them. The interplay between these women’s similarities and differences, and the sometimes jocund, sometimes fiery clashes that result therefrom, fuels a play that is 75 percent comedy, 25 percent tragedy and 100 percent outstanding.
That de Gouges, Corday, Antoinette and Angelle are as fascinating as they are in The Revolutionists owes as much to the actresses playing them as to their conception by playwright Lauren Gunderson. Though it is ostensibly de Gouges’ play, the true through line is Angelle, and Jada Suzanne Dixon makes a big impression in the role. Whether she’s encouraging de Gouges or verbally catfighting with the entitled Antoinette, Dixon’s Angelle exudes strength and conviction, and during the second act, Dixon delivers the play’s hardest emotional body blow with such force that it literally took my breath away.
Maire Higgins appears to relish the opportunity to play the Angel of Assassins. She goes for the gusto and gets it with a perfectly over-the-top portrayal of an impassioned radical. When she casually styles herself an “editor” of the journalist Marat, the audience erupted in laughter. And like Dixon, Higgins changes gears later in the play by conveying Corday’s very tangible fear and fragility. As Antoinette, Adrian Egolf arguably has the easiest job. Her character is written as the comic relief and is given many of the best lines like, “I’m here for a rewrite,” and “Hold the throne,” as well as a deliciously oblique Thomas Jefferson-as-slave-diddler reference. It takes an actress of Egolf’s substantial talent, however, to turn the jester aristocrat in a play about social equality into a likeable, even sympathetic character.
It’s been quite a few years since I last saw BETC co-founder Rebecca Remaly on stage. During that time, I’ve enjoyed numerous productions she’s directed, produced or both, but it was a real and rare pleasure to see her in front of the lights once again. Remaly’s take on de Gouges makes her at once the most modern and seemingly timeless of The Revolutionists’ sisterhood. De Gouges is obviously a proxy for Gunderson, and Remaly bounces effortlessly between that meta element and the more traditional dramatic requirements of the part.
The Revolutionists is not only another win by BETC, but establishes for me the inarguable artistic dominance of Lauren Gunderson. When the women of The Revolutionists make fun of the idea of a play within a play from their position in a play about a play within a play, one just can’t help but smile.
On the Bill: The Revolutionists. BETC at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Through Oct. 8 Tickets $20 and up.