The Revolutionists is what an evening would be like Zooming with four of your best friends — if they happened to be an assassin, the former queen of France, a playwright and a Haitian spy and abolitionist — whose paths cross during the French Revolution.
If you are not sharp enough to imagine that conversation, you are in luck because playwright Lauren Gunderson has done it for you. She deftly portrays these women as intellectual and emotional sparring partners in a play within a play full of anachronisms and profanity-laden wit and wisdom. And under the direction of Dee Dee Batteast, the Farmers Alley Theatre production is as engaging and fierce as the script is funny and thoughtful.
The Revolutionists in the play are playwright Olympe de Gouges (Lisa Abbott), author and assassin Charlotte Corday (Devon Hayakawa), and dethroned queen Marie Antoinette, a chatty self-absorbed, pastel bubble of a royal as portrayed by the effervescent Megan Tiller. Rounding out their quartet is Marianne Angelle (Arizsia Staton), a composite character, representing several female abolitionists and freedom fighters from the country now known as Haiti.
As de Gouges battles writer’s block — struggling not to just to write but to write with meaning about the physical and psychological turmoil embroiling her country — into her life wander the other women, each seeking her talents to help their causes. Angelle needs political tracts to help her battle for independence and to end slavery. Corday demands a dazzling last line to recite after she murders Jean-Paul Marat. Marie Antoinette wants a fairy tale ending — and ribbons and gaiety.
The snappy 90 minutes inhabited by these characters is not driven by actions. Although, yes, Corday does kill journalist and politician Marat, stabbing him to death in his bathtub — an act Hayakawa gleefully mimes repeatedly as she energetically tears through her lines.
The heart of this play is the dialogue between the women — a tour de force of breathless repartee in which they debate the value of art over action, discuss inspiration and passion, argue purpose and vision. Gunderson rarely gives her characters — or audience — pause to be with the ideas. There are so many thoughts, suggestions and one-liners to dispense and time is fleeting.
The audience knows that because another character — the guillotine — hovers over the women in the background waiting to steal the light and extinguish theirs. It is the centerpiece of the set’s otherwise charming cottage-like setting.
Batteast keeps her actresses driving forward at an incredible pace for the full 90 minutes. The dialogue never lags, the performers skillfully flowing back and forth with ideas and lines and verbal tics (“Is it a musical?) that explore each woman’s desire to find purpose and meaning amidst the chaos of the revolution outside their door.
While Marianne is the one fictional character, she is also the very real heart of the story in the latter part of the play as she faces personal loss in her pursuit of liberty. Staton delivers her heartbreak with a devastating emotional clarity. DeGouges is a writer who can imagine millions of possible artistic turns and yet questions her ability to realize a work of meaning. Abbott beautifully captures the turmoil of the creative genius demoralized by doubt.
And then there is Marie, a giggling pouf of pink. Tiller’s Marie is royal spun out of cotton candy and held together by ribbons and self-importance. But through her encounters with the other women, she eventually sets aside her mask of privilege — in this case her towering pink-tipped wig — and Tiller reveals the young queen’s heart and a lovely tenderness, laid bare by her new friendships.
Nevermind liberté, égalité, fraternité. For The Revolutionists, it shall always be liberté, égalité and sororité.