Interview: Paige O'Connor Takes on Cape Cod and Marie Antoinette in The Revolutionists

As she makes her main stage debut at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, O’Connor finds the humor and relevance in Lauren Gunderson’s unconventional new play.

Paige O'Connor, who is currently donning the mile-high wig of Marie Antoinette in Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater's (WHAT) The Revolutionists, can think of nothing better than landing a role in a summer show in the heart of Cape Cod. "Where else can audiences easily go from a day on the beach to a night of theater in flip flops and t-shirts?"

O'Connor is no stranger to WHAT, having performed in its family shows as an intern while she attended The NYU Tisch School of the Arts New Studio program. In Lauren Gunderson's The Revolutionists, which marks O'Connor's first main stage production with the company, she proves her ease and versatility as a performer in a tongue-in-cheek comedy set during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. She spoke with us about playing a distorted version of a historical figure, the relevance of Gunderson's new play, and her not-so-secret aspirations to be on Saturday Night Live.

A scene from Lauren Gunderson's The Revolutionists at Wellflet Harbor Actors Theater
A scene from Lauren Gunderson's The Revolutionists at Wellflet Harbor Actors Theater
(image courtesy of the production)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Revolutionists is a comedy about feminism, terrorism and activism, amongst other heavy themes. That's a tough play to explain! How would you describe it?
It follows four women in revolutionary France: three of them are based on real women [playwright Olympe de Gouges, assassin Charlotte Corday, and Antoinette] and one of them is an amalgamation of multiple real women. They are unfortunately approaching the guillotine and realizing that their stories are coming to an end. They must figure out what that means for their legacies. They have never met in real life, but in this play they get the chance to discuss what it was to be a woman in revolutionary France on trial. On the first page Lauren [Gunderson] writes, "It is mostly a comedy." They're staring down a guillotine, but how they interact with each other is hilarious.

How does one get inside the head of Marie Antoinette? (No pun intended!)
This is my first time doing a charactevr based on a real person, and it's such a cool challenge because there's the real woman as she existed in history, and there's the woman as she is written in the play. I've done a lot of research on her, but I have had to balance it with the artistic side of things and make sure I'm honoring the version Lauren wrote and not just the historical version. Marie's arc in this is really cool because she grows from being somebody who is really out of touch, into the title of "Queen"; she becomes more empathetic about what it means to be a human in Revolutionary France. That arc has been so gratifying because she comes in like a bull in a china shop, and then slowly finds her ground throughout it.

Lauren's writing style is unique for a number of reasons, including that she does her own dramaturgy.
I've never had a playwright give that much information up front. I wish everyone did this! I'm a big fan. She has a lot of plays that explore historical women. Her style is very modern, and the work highlights how the past is current. Working on her stuff is a joy because she writes such interesting, complex, female characters, which unfortunately are sometimes hard to find. It's a joy as an actor to have it all on the page already and you just to have to say it.

What surprised you most about the women in The Revolutionists?
Charlotte Corday is such a cool figure. She was 25, and just decided she had to kill this journalist who was an extremist. She hired a painter to paint her a portrait of her murdering the guy. She had PR planned for it! She was the original influencer.

Also, everything in the play is current. There are a lot of lines that strike a nerve because they sound like they could be part of a conversation that we're having today.

How do your own experiences speak to the story being told in The Revolutionists?
The odds are against these women, who certainly are revolutionaries. Unfortunately, you walk in knowing that most of these characters die. There's something really beautiful about how they know they're up against a system in which them can't win, and they're still laughing and fighting. It is easy to think all hope is lost. This show has been really cathartic for me. Throughout history, women have done an incredible job of being strong in the face of obstacles and continuing to live despite knowing the odds are stacked against them. This play has been a good reminder of that.

Our director [Megan Nussle], came in with a quote from Dr. Who. "What's the point in them being happy if they're going to be sad later? The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later." It's so important to keep holding onto the joy because that in itself is the point.

How do you spread joy through your passion for sketch comedy?
I keep waiting to run into Lorne Michaels on the street for my SNL audition. I'm a huge Saturday Night Live fan. I used to sneak upstairs to watch it when I was 12, and when I'm unwinding I watch my SNL playlist. I'm still working on celebrity impressions- my impressions are all of people I know. Lorne Michaels wouldn't want to know what my high school teachers sound like! I did the Second City Comedy Studies program and I have a few characters from there that I will probably revive at some point as I continue to pursue sketch comedy.