The funny thing about the word “revolution,” says a character in TheatreLab’s new play “The Revolutionists,” is that in addition to a social or political upheaval, it can be defined as the full rotation of a celestial body on its axis or orbit, returning to the point from which it began.
This observation, made by a fictional Marie Antoinette of all people, is especially perceptive in reference to the French Revolution. The decade-long upheaval saw the French overthrow a monarchy and eventually replace it with Napoleon’s dictatorship through much bloodshed and turmoil.
Set during the Reign of Terror that saw more than 16,000 official executions, “The Revolutionists” uses this bloody backdrop to make pronouncements about women, art and terrorism in our society.
The year is 1793, and real-life playwright Olympe de Gouges (Maggie Roop) is suffering a bout of writer’s block. Relating this to fictional Haitian rebel Marianne Angelle (Katrinah Carol Lewis) — an amalgam of different black revolutionaries — de Gouges decides it might be best to start with the title of her prospective new play, something like “The Revolutionists.” It’s one of many lazy meta jokes, one-liners and “Les Mis” references that Lauren Gunderson’s script would be better served without.
Suddenly thrust into their conversation is Charlotte Corday (Lydia Hynes), a young woman who plans to assassinate the Jacobin journalist Jean Paul Marat as he takes a bath. Oh, and somehow a bubbly Marie Antoinette (Maggie Bavolack) finds her way into the proceedings as well. As the revolution continues to churn and more of their friends and colleagues continue to lose their heads — take note of the guillotines worked into Dasia Gregg’s set — each must grapple with what her ideals mean in a dangerous time.
With so many real-life and fascinating women depicted onstage, interestingly it’s the fictional Marianne Angelle to whom Gunderson gives the emotional heavy lifting. Lewis doesn’t disappoint, hitting both her dramatic and comedic marks with aplomb. Bavolack is effortlessly charming as the oblivious Marie Antoinette, and her dress, a pink creation that resembles a Barbie wedding cake, is the most successful of Ruth Hedberg’s 18th century-ish costumes. Hynes is all righteous zeal as the woman who earns the posthumous nickname the Angel of Assassination. Rounding out the cast, Roop is assured as the playwright who struggles to find her voice in the midst of revolution.
Under Chelsea Burke’s direction there are moments of levity, but they can’t counter a script that’s so amused with its own meta cleverness. The show starts off too glib to attain the emotional weight and depth that it attempts at its conclusion. And, forgive me for being all third-wave about it, but instead of saying something nuanced about women’s rights, it’s focused on sisterhood, as though if Marie Antoinette had simply engaged in a conversation with a woman from one of her colonies, all would have been well.
It’s particularly disappointing to see the story of de Gouges — a woman who challenged ideas of male authority with her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” and was beheaded for her activism — get such a subpar telling. Obviously Gunderson is trying to remake the past for the present, but misses out on saying much of substance about women’s rights in any period.
TheatreLab’s “The Revolutionists” plays through March 21 at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. For information, visit theatrelabrva.org or call 506-3533.