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TALKING ‘BOUT A REVOLUTION: An emotionally meta re-imagining of her-story and theatre

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Big Dawg might be coming off with a big win from last year’s season, but they have kicked off this year’s with a stage revolution.

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A revolution can take on many forms: They can be as meaningful as to change our very world, or they can be so minute they pass by without ever being acknowledged. In politics, science, industry, revolutions are taking place. Simply put, they are the struggle of what is against what will be—or at the very least what should be, a walk into the unknown with nothing more than hope.

PALPABLE HUMANS: Historic female figures come alive in ‘The Revolutionists’—but will they keep their heads? Photo by James Bowling pursuit of equality. Photo by James Bowling

PALPABLE HUMANS: Historic female figures come alive in ‘The Revolutionists’—but will they keep their heads? Photo by James Bowling

One revolution kicking off with a bang is Big Dawg Production’s 2019 season-opener, “The Revolutionists,” by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by the company’s artist director Steve “Hey Baby” Vernon, he has molded a play that is slick, witty and meta in its approach to the dark days of the French Revolution, known as the Reign of Terror. Between 1793 and 1794, literally, heads were rolling.

Gunderson’s script is quick and smart and mixes a modern conversation with its historic setting in a quite brilliant way, to entertain and educate. Cleverly, it shows the time period and women’s struggle so well, the play will trick audiences into laughing one moment, only to smash all its hopes in the next.

The show’s motif is all about female empowerment and equality, which is on full display from the top of the evening with Vernon’s awesome selection of music welcoming folks to take their seats. All are covers of popular songs done by women in all genres, from rock to folk to rap; each evoke the correct emotional reaction.

The events are chronicled through the eyes of Olympe De Gouges (Susan Auten), Charlotte Corday (Grace Carlyle Berry) and Marie Antoinette (Kire Ann Stenson), three women who stood on opposite sides of the central revolution but found themselves at the same end of it, the edge of the guillotine. Making up the fourth member of the mighty cast is Lavonia “Lovay” Robinson who plays Marianne Angelle. The only character not directly based off of a historical figure, she is more a representation of the black women and men who suffered under the horrific slave trade of the time. The actresses form a steadfast sisterhood to get each other through this historically hilarious heavy show.

There can be no better actress to build a cast around than Susan Auten. She has the rare ability to play the straight character and still draw the audience’s attention. She crafts relatable, palpable humans whenever she steps on stage. With De Gouges, Auten brings to life a playwright in the midst of finding her own writer’s voice—only if others could stop interrupting her so she can write. There is a true friendship De Gouges gives to her quickly built clique, but it’s equally matched with her strong need for self-preservation. Not a fair-weather friend, yet when the going gets tough, well, De Gouges gets going. She’s not a coward per se, but she lacks anything to stand for, and sadly she just does not realize it until it’s too late. Auten brings such a crushing honesty to a woman slowly seeing who she is and who she thinks she is does not match.

Lavonia Robinson’s Marianne is the first to join this makeshift sisterhood and is the longtime friend of De Gouges. She recently has returned from the Caribbean; with her husband, she is fighting to bring down the unjust French slave trade. She is a free woman and someone with a fight to stand for. She wants a declaration and she’s come to her writer friend to get it. The pure strength which exudes from Robinson is unmatched, while not having the most showy role of the four, she commands the stage around all of them. “I’m battling slavery and you’re fighting writer’s block,” she says with dry humor to land the gravity of her plight to De Gouges. Robinson will move audiences to tears when she is confronted with her husband’s “last letter,” a scene so shaking, all I can say is … wow!

Exploding onto the stage like a furious firecracker is Charlotte Corday, known to historians as (and this is her real nickname) The Angel of Assassination. She’s got a knife, a man to stab, time is of essence, and just needs the right last words to go out on (something with a lot of “fuck yous” in it). Believing that Jean-Paul Marat is a danger to France, she is here to shut the shit down!

Brought to a fighting life by the hellfire actress Grace Carlyle Berry, she makes Corday a confident woman, sure of the purity of her actions, even if those actions are murder. Yet, after her assassination is complete, she finds herself at the mercy of mobs calling for her head. The horrors she is forced to endure and fears she might have been wrong sets in. That horrid voice of doubt that creeps into us all is present in her shaky broken voice and it’s painful to listen to. It’s such good work.

Last but certainly nowhere near least is the prim, the proper, the pompous Marie Antoinette, The Me Queen, Citizen Cake, The Queen of France when shit hits the fan. While everyone has their moments of humor, the comedy of this show is dominated by Stenson. From attention-snatching sight gags to perfectly timed delivery, she is on point at every turn. Her battle with a mint wrapper that won’t follow her commands to her sheer vapid waspiness, in which she approaches everything exquisitely paired with a glassy eyed sense of I-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about will have audiences rolling in the aisle.

Though Stenson finds the perfect counterbalance to her humor and allows for the true human side of Antoinette to show, there are cracks in her poise, as she is berated by others for the state of her country; issues she is aware of but has no idea of how to fix. She is a solid example of a person trapped in a delightful situation.

Once again, Donna Troy has created art all over the walls and floor of the Cape Fear Playhouse. Her scenic design presents De Gouges’ study as a calming safe space, where all can find a reprieve from the warring outside world. On the balance of that, on the edge of both sides of the stage, she has detailed three ever-hanging guillotines, fresh with blood on their blades and pools of the oozing red stuff below them. The stunning and eye-catching rug she has painted on the floor is so beautiful in its use of color, and its fringes are done in such detail, one could at first mistake it for a real rug. Her work is second to none.

The set is a solid yet simple undertaking, but it is the three guillotines that truly capture attention, holding high above the stage. There are two on the right and left, the actual blades which will bring to end these powerful women’s lives, and the third, the proverbial blade hanging over everyone’s heads, representing women who hope to survive in trying times. It’s a top notch visual cue, as well as a perfect example of Chekhov’s gun that will leave audiences chronically looking up.
Beau Mumford’s lighting design is tight and enriches the play and story. Rudimentary, it’s a simple up-and-down setup;  though, it is the three individual spotlights which bathe the stage in colors of the French flag that really set it above. It is a wonderfully subtle way to show the pride our characters have in their country. The use of a red spot makes the bits where the blade is dropped pop more with the dark emphasis.

“The Revolutionists” is wonderful, shaped by professionals and performed to perfection. More so, it’s fresh; I for one had no knowledge of it before seeing it and in an awesome night of theatre, I was exposed to its story, its rich writing, and concepts it promotes.

As a male in today’s society, I’d say it’s a very important play to witness. Big Dawg might be coming off with a big win from last year’s season, but they have kicked off this year’s with a stage revolution.

The Revolutionists
April 4-7, 11-14; Thu. Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. matinee at 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.
Tickets: $18-$25

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