Lucky Penny has dropped head first (pardon the pun) into revisionist history with their production of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists. Directed by Dana Nelson Isaacs, the show runs at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center in Napa through Nov. 5.
Set during the 1791 French reign of terror, it features feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges (Heather Kellogg Baumann) trying to write her way out of losing her head. Complicating matters are her friend Marianne Angelle (Tia Madison), who is fighting to free slaves; assassin Charlotte Corday (Pilar Gonzales), who is plotting to stab Marat; and everyone’s favorite cake-eating queen, Marie Antoinette (Kirstin Pieschke).
While Gunderson’s script veers toward Ars Dramatica, filled with sermons about the value of playwrights, its spectacle redeems it. Since it is unapologetically meta, Gunderson does not hold back on theatricality when showing how stories are made and told. From the opening moments of disembodied breathing to the ominous presence of the ever-present guillotine, the question of who tells the story of history is presented as the life-and-death situation that it is.
Unfortunately, Baumann’s de Gouges can never escape the whininess to which the character is prone. The play needs to be as taut as the rope holding the guillotine blade to avoid falling into pretentiousness. To do that, Baumann needed to up her stakes and play the immediacy of the character.
Baumann wasn’t the only actor with low stakes. Madison’s Marianne Angelle is lukewarm throughout the play—an odd choice for being the literal manifestation of the revolution. Alternatively, Gonzales plays Charlotte Corday as simply angry, which, though justifiable given the script, gets tiring. Both would have benefitted from a deeper exploration of their character’s humanity.
Marie Antoinette, however, is a compelling and sympathetic character. Pieschke’s portrayal of the surprisingly profound queen is phenomenal in its silliness, vulnerability and strength.
Pieschke’s excellent costume (by Barbara McFadden) helps. However, Madison’s dress doesn’t fit her, and Olympe’s costume is a mishmash of late 19th-century styles. The costumes were probably meant to express the overall anarchical tone of the play, but the well-designed set (by Barry Martin and director Isaacs) and props (by Allison Sutherland) veer toward realism.
This dichotomy is symptomatic of a production that lacks a strong unifying vision. Perhaps Olympe herself sums up the problem and the solution best when responding to Corday’s need for help: “We could all use a dramaturg.”
‘The Revolutionists’ runs through Nov. 5 at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center. 1758 Industrial Way, Napa. Thur–Sat, 7pm; Sun, 2pm. $22–$34. 707.266.6305. luckypennynapa.com.