Someone on playwright Lauren Gunderson’s publicity team really wants audiences to know that, outside of Shakespeare, she is this season’s most produced playwright in America. It’s a good hook, though not actually relevant to how one might respond to Gunderson’s fleet-footed, literate plays.
The popularity of her work speaks especially to its appeal among theater producers and artistic directors, who no doubt can appreciate the meta conceits of theatrical comedies about the potency of good writing. The writer’s arch dramedies about dramatists have been well-represented on D.C. area stages this season, with The Book of Will currently running at Round House, and WSC Avant Bard’s production, recently closed, of Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight.
The latter play, a brainy portrait of a French proto-feminist scientist, writer, and revolutionary thinker, shares a few obvious similarities with The Revolutionists (), a brainy comedy, also focused on a French proto-feminist writer and revolutionary thinker. However, here Gunderson has spiked the blend of history, French lit, and fictionalized biography with elements of wit and fantasy that lend much spirit to Everyman Theatre’s production, directed by Casey Stangl.
Fun to engage, both on an intellectual level and as a mini-spectacle of colorful costumes and charming repartee, Stangl’s lively staging steadily delivers Gunderson’s good humor, even as the characters contemplate war, beheadings, and the end of the young Republic. The playwright Olympe de Gouge (Megan Anderson), a real-life French Revolution-era firebrand, is holed up in her writerly den, hosting a powwow of powerful ladies that, in this case, could exist only in fiction.
Consumed by a need to lift her pen for her side of the fight in a fraught political moment, De Gouge stirs about her abode pondering “the truth that needs writing.” She’s aided by her guests: old friends like Marianne Angelle (Dawn Ursula), not a real-life heroine, but a real-life symbol of slaves’ claim to freedom by revolution; and new acquaintances like the assassin Charlotte Corday (Emily Kester), who indeed drove a knife into the throat of a radical Revolutionary.
Unlikely as a playwright’s houseguest, or as a key member in a crew of feminist revolutionaries, De Gouge’s final arrival of the evening is Marie Antoinette (Beth Hylton), the monarch best known for not getting it. This Marie does get what De Gouge, and Gunderson, are getting at in celebrating, as it’s expressed in De Gouge’s Declaration of the Rights of Woman, “the self-evident truth that women are people.” The deposed Queen of France also can recognize the sadder truth that, as Marianne puts it, the lady who has time to write her little skits might not be the hero of the Revolution.
Introspective, self-deprecating, and self-aggrandizing, the play feels urgently personal, as much as it also tries to tell a story of many women. Representing those many women, the ensemble are a solid quartet, with Anderson in the lead, masterfully depicting a character whose mind is always racing, and Hylton a sheer delight as Marie Antoinette.
Thanks in part to David Burdick’s wonderful costumes, which capture period and character, and the whimsy of fantasy, Hylton’s queen looks top-to-bottom like Singin’ in the Rain’s fabulous Jean Hagen in The Duelling Cavalier, and she’s every bit as hilarious. In other words, she kills it.
The play itself doesn’t totally overcome the low stakes of its hypothetical premise. After all, nothing any of these radical femmes might do could save Marie’s head from the guillotine. But writing counts for something — in this play, in politics, in life right now. Gunderson succeeds in making the point that the spoken and written word will have an important part to play in any revolution that comes storming through history.
The Revolutionists runs until January 7 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore. Tickets are $10 to $65. Call 410-752-2208, or visit everymantheatre.org.
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