The cast and crew of The Revolutionists want to make one thing clear: A play about four women during the French Revolution, two of whom lose their heads, is funny.
“It’s a sassy comedy,” says Shannon Emerick, who plays French writer and activist Olympe De Gouges in Lauren Gunderson’s 2016 masterfully irreverent comedy.
Emerick has known Gunderson since 2001, when she was cast in one of her off-Broadway plays in New York City. Last season, Emerick performed in another Gunderson production, Silent Sky, a play about women “computers” who help map the stars.
In The Revolutionists, Emerick is thrilled to channel De Gouges, the historic writer, playwright and revolutionary during the French Revolution.
“The way Lauren uses language moves me deeply,” she says, likening her to British playwright Tom Stoppard. “It’s very intellectual, with a deeply human quality that she brings to everything she writes.”
The Revolutionists opens with De Gouges attempting to write a play. She tries to make sense of the bloody, seismic shift the revolution brought to France, pitting the public against the aristocracy and turning the country on its head. The Revolutionists blend history with what Emerick calls a “fantasia” that showcases the lives and choices of the four main characters, De Gouges, Marie Antoinette (Bree Welch), assassin Charlotte Corday (Molly Searcy) and Marianne Angelle (Callina Situka).
“Audiences will have heard of one of the characters—Marie Antoinette—but who’s heard of Olympe De Gouges?” says Emerick. “She’s a feminist, activist and abolitionist. She wrote these wildly subversive plays about the role women should have in the world. It’s been a joy to do this.”
Gunderson’s historical plays, including Silent Sky and The Revolutionists, are meticulously done, using letters, transcripts and other research to craft the stories. But Gunderson writes more than historic fiction. Earlier this year, Houstonians had the chance to see I and You at Stages Repertory Theatre, a play about an unlikely friendship between two teens, one of whom is terminally ill.
“It feels amazing,” Gunderson says about her work's growing influence around the country. “It’s a confirmation of a 10-year practice of storytelling, finding not only my voice, but finding things important enough to talk about and these wonderful companies that share my passion and urgency in telling these stories.”
Gunderson describes The Revolutionists as “funny and feminist,” even as it looks at a very dark period of history. The Atlanta native, who now lives in San Francisco with her husband and son, wrote her first play when she was 13.
“I didn’t really realize people were still writing plays,” she laughs. “But I did realize there weren't a lot of parts for girls.”
So she wrote her own.
It didn’t seem like a stretch for the young woman who wrote her first story in kindergarten—her mother still has it—and would continue to write throughout her life. The author of more than a dozen plays, Gunderson’s works have been performed across the U.S. Until last year, Austin was the only Texas city that produced her plays. Emerick read a review of Silent Sky, and offered to get the play, since she knew Gunderson. Once Rebecca Greene Udden, Main Street Theater’s artistic director, read it, it became a must for the company’s calendar.
“There’s a fascinating structure that makes up this play,” says Emerick. “And there is such a sense of sisterhood with the characters. It’s important that we’re doing it now, as women continue to strive for their place. But, this is not about putting men down, it’s about raising women up. It’s irreverent, hilarious and important all at once.”
Sept 8–Oct 2. Main Street Theater-Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. mainstreettheater.com