Farmers Alley Theatre bites the blade to the best of their ability with “The Revolutionists”

Elliot Russell, Editor-in-Chief

“The Revolutionists,” written for the stage by Lauren Gunderson, is a four-woman play set in 1793 during the Reign of Terror, the infamously bloody phase of the French Revolution when execution by guillotine was the truest form of “égalité,” or equality. It follows four “badass” women, as the promotional material advertises, all of whom were prominent figures in their time in one way or another. 

This year, for Women’s History Month, Kalamazoo’s own Farmers Alley Theatre put on a production of the show in their intimate downtown venue with Dee Dee Batteast at the helm as director. Thanks to a grant from the Education for the Arts program, the Knight Life staff had the chance to catch a showing on March 20.

Our protagonist is Olympe de Gouges (Lisa Abbott), a playwright turned revolutionary who struggles to find her place in this mess of a revolution. She goes through half-baked script after half-baked script trying to uncover what she’ll be remembered for in this grand scheme, losing sight of the original goal of the Revolution as so many did at this point.

Olympe finds “sororité,” or sisterhood, among an unlikely crowd: Marianne Angelle (Megan Tiller), a black Haitian abolitionist working as a spy; Charlotte Corday (Devon Hayakawa), the famed assassin of the radical Jean-Paul Marat and unlikeliest of all, Marie Antoinette (Arizsia Staton), the former queen of France.

While only four actresses occupied the stage—in some scenes, less—their performances more than filled the small, simple and effective set. Each one shined in their role and defined their character, from Hayakawa’s sprightliness as Charlotte to Staton’s naive swagger as Marie.

Unfortunately, the quippy dialogue left little breathing room for the audience to appreciate the forces at play. I felt shell-shocked trying to follow the chaotic back-and-forth of the characters. They would oftentimes change allegiances or their personalities entirely, for the sake of a joke or to move the plot forward. For instance, when the colonized, Marianne, becomes sympathetic the colonizer, Marie, even for the innocent purpose of a heartfelt resolution, any concept of who these characters are and what they stand for goes out the window.

With too much crammed into too short a runtime, there wasn’t time to process the nuances of the script. Of course, these four women would never have met, let alone have gotten along, and with that in mind, Gunderson wrote in a cop-out that becomes most apparent in the final act: all of the play’s events take place in Olympe’s mind as she approaches the guillotine. While it’s clever on paper, it gets lost in the sea of one-liners and ends up feeling like an afterthought.

Over the course of the play, Olympe comes to realize that her role in the Revolution isn’t necessarily about her, but my god, does it take her a long time to come to her senses. Not until her head is on the chopping block does she come to understand the selfless nature of the larger-than-life movement that was the French Revolution. At this point, my patience for her was lost and my investment had long been thrown away. An insufferable protagonist can kill a good story, and in this case, it did for me.

Production-wise, the crew and actresses still managed to bring their typical vigor to the story. Live theater was made more of a marvel by the two years we had to go without it, and being face to face with the actors at the Farmers Alley Theatre is always a thrilling way to experience it.