Lauren Gunderson is the queen of modern period pieces, bringing history to light through the lens of today. She has turned her focus on Shakespeare’s friends and survivors and other Shakespearean inspirations, as well as 18th century philosopher and mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, 19th-century computer pioneer Ada Lovelace, and early 20th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. One contemporary exception to her looks into the past is her recent play about her own husband, biologist Nathan Wolfe, who accurately predicted the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gunderson has achieved what years of high school teachers could not: inspiring me to go deep into history and science.
In The Revolutionists, now in a terrific production at Theatre Forty in Beverly Hills, Gunderson presents Marie Antoinette (Meghan Lloyd), two lesser-known (but shouldn’t be) women of the French Revolution era, and an amalgam of multiple women fighting for freedom in French-controlled Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).
The year 1793 was no fun for the French, launching the Reign of Terror and putting the guillotine into executionary overtime. In the fraught era, Olympe de Gouges (Kat Kemmet) was an activist playwright fighting for women’s equality and the worldwide abolition of slavery; she’s happy that “my plays piss off the right kind of people.” Charlotte Corday (Sami Stumman) was a revolutionary who assassinated Jean-Paul Marat; his beliefs, although aligned to revolution, Corday considered too radical.
And Marianne Angelle (Alana J. Webster), the amalgam, is a Haitian rebel and spy who entreats De Gouges to write in support of her cause. Her preference is a play, but says she will settle for pamphlets about Saint-Domingue and its slaves and sugar plantations. (Although Haiti did not win its independence until 1804, France did free its Saint-Domingue slaves in August 1793.)
Marie Antoinette, for her part, is looking for “better press.”
The cast is universally excellent, exuding passion and talent under the direction of Melanie MacQueen. They rage and plot, murder and comfort, expose inequality and fight against it.
The Revolutionists has some very fun self-referential moments about playwriting, identifying the importance of exposition, rising action and structure, and noting, “We’re all just in another play that someone else is writing.” Yes they are, and they’re lucky that someone is Gunderson.
The Revolutionists runs through June 18 at Theatre Forty, on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets, $35, are available here. Subscription packages to the just-announced 2023-2024 season are available here.