The year 1793 was a particularly bad one for French playwright Olympe de Gouges, assassin Charlotte Corday and former queen Marie Antoinette.
All three women lost their heads. And by that, we don’t mean they were unnerved by something or swept away by love. Each had a hastily arranged date with the guillotine and, un deux trois, the Reign of Terror did its bloody work.
Lauren Gunderson, the most produced playwright in the United States in 2017 (if you don’t count William Shakespeare), turned her boundless imagination and penchant for illuminating the lives of historical figures into “The Revolutionists,” a play about the three women. She added a character named Marianne Angelle, a spy from the French colony of Saint-Domingue, then in the early stages of the revolution that would turn it into an independent Haiti.
But note that Gunderson’s play, which has just opened in a buoyant, wildly creative production at Theatre Lab in Boca Raton, is anything but a straightforward historical drama. Topically and stylistically, “The Revolutionists” resists classification. It’s a comedy until it isn’t. It’s meta theater, a political play, a play about the value of art, a play about the ways in which women support and undercut one another. It’s truth dipped in fantasy.
The play starts with the sounds of frightened breathing, the thumping of a heart, the slicing fall of the guillotine’s blade. Then, Olympe (Niki Fridh) observes that, as a beginning for a comedy, that’s not such a hot idea. As she’s casting about for other ones, her friend Marianne (Candice Marie Singleton) bursts in wearing a sash declaring “Révolution pour tous (Revolution for all)” and asking for the playwright’s help in crafting anti-slavery pamphlets, articles and treatises.
Olympe demurs, only to have another bold woman come pounding at her door. Charlotte (Nicole Stoica) is on her way to assassinate radical journalist-revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat — the steak knife she’ll use to do the deed is already concealed in her boot — and knowing that she’ll surely be executed for her bloody act, she wants Olympe to write her some memorable last words.
After much clever back and forth about theater and political action, in which Olympe seizes on each new idea as a way to overcome her writer’s block, the deposed Marie Antoinette (Mia Matthews) arrives. Her Former Majesty is also looking for Olympe’s writerly services. Some historical revisionism, she thinks, may be in order before her inevitable date with the guillotine.
As heavy as “The Revolutionists” may sound, Gunderson, director Matt Stabile and the inspired Theatre Lab cast keep a play brimming with ideas big and small artfully aloft. Using contemporary language, speech patterns and plenty of humor, Gunderson keeps the audience engaged in a historical fantasy that seems anything but distant.
The performers, each one a beauty in Dawn C. Shamburger’s period costumes, vibrantly inhabit characters who evolve from witty women to courageous ones who face death with dignity.
Fridh’s Olympe is a woman of churning ideas, some absurd (should her new work be a musical?), some bold (speaking to the unreceptive revolutionary men of the National Assembly about the rights of women). Initially faint-hearted in the face of danger, she grows to become as bold as the others in this Gunderson-devised sisterhood.
Singleton’s Marianne, the invented character, is a levelheaded wife and mother risking everything to end slavery in her homeland. Quietly observant and frank in her opinions, she becomes a confidante and source of emotional solace to the others.
As Charlotte, Stoica is something of a female buccaneer. Swagger is in her DNA, while bold impatience is her style. Yet as she awaits her fate in prison, her vulnerability in a touching scene with Marianne reveals the frightened young woman beneath the assassin’s armor.
As written and interpreted, Matthews’ Marie Antoinette is a treasure. Girlish, still adorned in the queen’s bow-bedecked finery and sometimes speaking of herself in the third person, this Marie evolves from a frivolous royal to a movingly dignified figure whose final words, conveyed truthfully by Gunderson, stemmed from the queen accidentally stepping on her executioner’s foot.
Although Theatre Lab’s small, 92-seat space always presents challenges for designers, the team for “The Revolutionists” has achieved both the lightness and the dramatic darkness the play requires.
The main focus for set designer Michael McClain is Olympe’s elegant apartment, but he also provides a jail cell for Charlotte, a platform for the unseen guillotine and panels that conceal a pair of giant “judges” who will pass sentence on the women (the fluidly quick set changes are handled by three silent men in period costumes).
Lighting designer Jayson Tomasheski enhances the storytelling, bathing Charlotte in blood-red light after she stabs Marat in his bath, washing the women in heavenly white light after the guillotine has done its work. For his part, sound designer Matt Corey underscores the sense of danger, right down to the disturbing final sound of the blade’s deadly drop.
Running a couple of hours, “The Revolutionists” makes clear why Gunderson’s work is so widely produced. Brimming (some would say overflowing) with engaging ideas, examining the past in a way that resonates in the present, Theatre Lab’s latest is another feast for theater lovers hungry for art with substance.
“The Revolutionists” is running through Feb. 25 in Parliament Hall on the Florida Atlantic University Campus, 777 Glades Road, in Boca Raton. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 561-297-6124 or go to FAUEvents.com.