The Reign of Terror is a girls’ night out in Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists,” which is in its area premiere by Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater (through Nov. 12). Trouble is, the “girls” are so busy being metatheatrical, hectoring, anachronistic and blabby that they don’t have much fun. And oh yes, there is that guillotine out there, slicing through necks and bravado alike.
The prolific Gunderson, 35, is the most produced living playwright in the country right now. She writes primarily about women in science and history, and “The Revolutionists,” which debuted at Cincinnati Playhouse in 2016, is no exception. (Her utterly surprising “I and You,” which has its roots in Walt Whitman and which Merrimack Repertory Theatre produced in 2015, is.) Other works by Gunderson include “Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight,” which the Nora produced in 2014, and “Silent Sky,” given its area premiere earlier this year by Flat Earth Theatre.
This play — identified by the writer as "a comedy, a quartet, a revolutionary dream fugue, a true story" — brings together four cohabitants of 18th-century France and allows them to form an unlikely sisterhood. The trick is that it all takes place in the mind of “badass” dramatist and pamphleteer Olympe de Gouges, famed for her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.” Here, however, she is running scared and struggling to pen the very play we are watching before “Madame Guillotine” calls her name.
The dramatis personæ of de Gouges’ theater piece (which includes herself) are all "badass": Charlotte Corday, the young woman who up and assassinated fanatical Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat; deposed queen Marie Antoinette, here an oblivious but not inhumane cone-head in a Bo Peep frock; and Marianne Angelle, a free black woman from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (later Haiti), who is in Paris touting “revolution for all” while doing some espionage. Curiously, the most genuine of these is Marianne (the Nora program does not give her a last name), who is an amalgam.
De Gouges’ three co-conspirators appear one at a time in her mind, or residence — in Abby Shenker’s set design a wooden platform atop some wandering white parquet, overhung with one stylized guillotine and numerous chandeliers whimsically sporting streamers in the French colors. But of course the other women are always there, in the crumpled-up wads of attempted drama strewn about the place.
Moreover, while “The Revolutionists” can be too precious — and definitely too talky — for its own good, it does boast an ingenious central conceit. Unlike historical figures brought together in, say, Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” or Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties,” de Gouges, Corday, Marie Antoinette and the Caribbean revolutionary represented by Marianne do have implied connections. Corday and de Gouges certainly influenced the perception of women in the French Revolution — in whose motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, there is no mention of sororité. De Gouges was a fervent opponent of slavery in the French colonies. And the dramatist was condemned in part for an unproduced play, “France Preserved, or The Tyrant Dethroned,” that looked on Marie Antoinette as someone who might be reformed.
So I am sorry to report that eventually the winking metatheatricality of “The Revolutionists” becomes tedious. In Celeste Oliva’s dotty yet forceful performance, Marie Antoinette, trolling for cake, connection and “a rewrite,” can be a stitch. And she does utter the play’s most inalienable truth in the line: “Ugh. God. It’s always the women who have to do the changing, isn’t it?” To which de Gouges adds a bit later: “When will women ask ourselves: What has this revolution given us? And if the answer is nothing? When will we take it for ourselves?”
In other words, to the barricades, sisters! Which reminds me that among the play’s numerous theater in-jokes are several invocations of “Les Misérables,” which has nothing to do with the French Revolution in process here, and are therefore not only cheap but also sloppy. And do we really need Charlotte Corday rushing in demanding that the playwright craft her a line — the ringing "I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand" — because “I don’t want to sound like a dingbat”?
But my caveats are with the play, not Courtney O’Connor’s enthusiastic production for the Nora, which does its best to humanize its iconic females and plow with wit and passion through all the speechifying. I don’t know whether de Gouges would appreciate being portrayed as a writer blocked, fearful, fiery and confused while endeavoring to write not what she knows but what she “wants.” But that is how the role is written, and Nora artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner, barefoot and as disarranged as her hair, delivers the goods.
Alexandria King brings both sense and warmth to Marianne while, of all things, mom-bonding with Marie Antoinette. The wonderful Eliza Rose Fichter — an exceptional child actor now grown up -- makes a touchingly defiant, vain but booming tomboy of Corday. And like Oliva’s sobered Marie Antoinette, she proves elegant and dignified once stripped to her tunic and standing under the blade.
In short, “The Revolutionists” is too lecturing to be comedy and too jokey to be drama. It’s as if the playwright had come up with a neat conceit plus four fascinating women, teased them — and us — with the blood and bones of revolutionary ideas (some of them white-hot now) and then switched them out for Marie Antoinette’s favorite dessert.
Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists” is at Central Square Theater through Nov. 12.