There’s something about “The Revolutionists,” Lauren Gunderson’s funny and moving play now galvanizing the stage of Everyman Theatre, that perfectly matches the tenor of our time.
Blending fact, fiction and fantasy, the playwright puts the audience into the thick of the French Revolution, but not from the usual vantage point, the one focused on the men who led it and bled it.
Gunderson helps us see the might-have-beens of this awful history, the possibilities if only the voices of women had been truly heard, their concerns taken seriously.
The scene is Paris, 1793, and the guillotine casts its crude shadow daily — that chilling device is never long out of sight in the Everyman production, which boasts a terrifically atmospheric set and projections by Daniel Ettinger, complemented by Elizabeth Harper’s sensitive lighting.
The play’s four female characters take us on a gripping ride as they plunge into the thick of things, determined to correct the course of a revolution run amok.
They know how difficult their task is — as one of them reminds us, “This is the ‘Reign of Terror,’ not ‘The Reign of Agree to Disagree’ ” — but they sense they’re on to something important for France. You might say they’re experiencing a “moi, too” moment.
As “The Revolutionists” begins, Olympe de Gouges (Megan Anderson), a successful author of plays, struggles with writer’s block.
Enter the one purely fictional character, Marianne Angelle (Dawn Ursula), a straight-talking free black woman and sly spy from the Caribbean, anxious to get emancipation onto the agenda of the anti-monarchy mob. Marianne proposes that Olympe devote her talents to penning pamphlets that will rouse the populace to act on slavery and other vital issues.
But the writer is fixed on crafting a play first, one that captures what’s happening in the streets. Olympe even envisions making it a musical. “Oh, God,” Marianne says, “no one wants a musical about the French Revolution.”
A sudden pounding on the door of Olympe’s place thrusts Charlotte Corday (Emily Kester) into the picture, moving everything into an even higher gear. Charlotte is a woman on a mission: to assassinate Jean-Paul Marat, the uber-radical journalist whose writings feed more and more victims to the revolution. But Charlotte’s in desperate need of a great line to utter while carrying out the deed.
“My actions will be talked about for centuries,” she says to Olympe. “I need something that will sink into their memories … something with a lot of ‘[expletive] you’ in it.”
Before Olympe can sort out the competing demands from Marianne and Charlotte, one more woman crashes the scene. It’s none other than Marie Antoinette (Beth Hylton), looking for help with a little historical revisionism. She’s not such a bad person, to hear her tell it. “I care so much about my people and my country,” she says. “I just need better press.”
(An unfinished play by the real de Gouges, a manuscript used against her at her trial, attempted to show a redeemable side to Marie Antoinette.)
One-liners bubble up constantly here, flavored with delectable anachronisms. The fizzing dialogue throws you off-guard as you get pulled into this kinetic world of would-be girl power. You almost forget the specter of that tireless blade hanging over all and sundry. So when the dark turns come, and come they must, they register with an extra jolt.
“The Revolutionists” might come off as silly or studied in the wrong hands. The terrific Everyman cast, superbly directed by Casey Stangl, ensures that all the disparate elements click neatly into place.
Anderson gives the most vibrant and layered performance I’ve seen from her yet, reaching an affecting peak in the second act, when Olympe’s convictions get sorely tested.
As usual, Ursula does striking work. She’s a natural at dispensing deadpan wit, triggering some of the best laughs of the show, and is just as effective when revealing the part of Marianne’s personal life that keeps her outward flame burning.
Kester makes an ideal Charlotte, giving us a portrait by turns flippant, intense (she’s a hoot practicing her “stabbing and scary eyes”), and just a little bit scared.
Hylton, deliciously outfitted in an iridescent pannier skirt (David Burdick’s costume designs are a treat), is hilarious and, yes, rather endearing as the ditsy, doomed queen. You really, really want to believe her when she says her infamous let-them-eat-cake line “was out of context; I thought I was ordering lunch.”
“The Revolutionists” — the first Gunderson play to get a professional production in the Baltimore area — adds up to a surprising, yet cohesive and even somehow comforting, experience.
At one point, Marianne hopes for a future where women will lead the way, will be free to “laugh too loudly and too often, and call out the hypocrites of our age until they are the butt of the joke.”
It may have taken awhile, but it seems she’s getting her wish.