It has been a difficult five years for Park Square Theatre. The company that has been a mainstay in downtown St. Paul since 1972 has struggled to find its footing since artistic director Richard Cook’s retirement in 2018, and the ink on its books turned a deeper red.
When all theaters went dark during COVID, the company held out hope of presenting Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists.” Twice scheduled for 2020, it finally arrived at Park Square’s Proscenium Stage.
Yet he feels like the sole survivor of a theatrical tragedy, as he is surrounded by schedule cancellations: two shows before and three after. The current staging will close out Park Square’s 2022-23 season as the company regroups and seeks financial stability.
Like three of the four shows that Park Square will present this season, “The Revolutionists” is a co-production with another local company, in this case PRIME Productions. And it’s a pretty admirable effort, one that stands out alongside some of Park Square’s more adventurous offerings. In many ways, it’s the best kind of historical work, one that makes the past feel prescient and inspires you to reexamine what you’ve learned.
It’s also a lively exploration of the places where art and reality intersect and often collide. “The Revolutionists” is set in 1793 France, where the overthrow of the monarchy has given way to brutal bloodshed that history has come to call “the Reign of Terror.” We see it through the eyes of four women, three of them actual historical figures, the other a composite. They are a playwright, a murderer, a Caribbean equal rights activist and the former queen, Marie Antoinette.
Oh, and… it’s a comedy. Playwright Gunderson has packed her witty script with plenty of decidedly 21st-century jokes. Yes, much of it is dark humor, or rather guillotine humor, but there were plenty of laughs at the performance I attended, especially during the fast-paced first act. That’s when it becomes clear that it is a kind of “meta” play, in which the writer Olympe de Gouges talks with her characters and creates the story on stage.
The most fascinating of the four women is Jane Froiland’s eccentric yet charismatic Marie Antoinette. She has come to De Gouges in search of a more sympathetic posterity, in the hope that she may be portrayed in one of her works as a kinder soul than the woman who said “Let them eat cake”, or at worst, as a victim of his circumstances. Gunderson makes a compelling case for that, an underlying theme of “The Revolutionists” being that women’s voices are drowned out when men decide that revenge and violence are the answer to their problems.
Subscribing to the latest notion is Jasmine Porter’s Charlotte Corday razor, who silenced the voice of the Reign of Terror, Jean-Paul Marat. Their point of view is weighed in debates over the best way forward, with the playwright de Gouges (Alison Edwards) choosing to wage war with words on women’s rights and Marianne Angelle (Aunt Marie Tanzer) trying to make sure that the cause of the abolition of slavery is not lost in the cacophony fueled by the conflict.
While Froiland’s Marie is flawless, I wish director Shelli Place had asked the other actors to bring more energy, detail, and confidence to their performances. Nevertheless, it is a work worth experiencing, one that moves both the mind and the heart.
Park Square Theater and PRIME Productions’ ‘The Revolutionaries’
- When: Until April 16
- Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
- Tickets: $55-$16, available at 651-291-7005 or parksquaretheatre.org
- Capsule: A thought-provoking comedy about deciding how to change the world.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at [email protected].