Imagining the interactions of various historical characters who likely never met in real life often proves a fruitful ground for fiction and drama. Such is the case in Lauren Gunderson's dark comedy "The Revolutionists," which offers a feminist perspective on the French Revolution by giving voice to four women who lived (and/or died) through it: playwright Olympe de Gouges, deposed royal Marie Antoinette, assassin Charlotte Corday and Caribbean spy Marianne Angelle. The show, directed by Caitlin Papp, is kicking off Dragon Production Theatre Company's 2019 season.
"The Revolutionists" is largely seen through the eyes of de Gouges (Maria Marquis), its conversations and events serving as her last words and thoughts, her final theatrical opus as she faces the guillotine. The action is set at the height of France's "Reign of Terror" in 1793, when the righteous cause of throwing out the monarchs and fighting for equality has been overshadowed by paranoia, mob rule and wanton violence.
Playwright de Gouges wants desperately to write something of lasting importance but also fears the repercussions of getting too involved. Angelle (Jenafer Thompson), her friend (a character invented by Gunderson but rooted in the history of Haiti's successful revolution against slavery), passionately prods de Gouges to stop hiding behind theater and use her privilege to take a major stand, pointing out the hypocrisy of white, male Frenchmen paying lip service to ideals of liberty and freedom while oppressing women and running a major slavery operation in the Caribbean. They encounter Corday (Melissa Jones) when she appeals to de Gouges to craft some eloquent last words for her, as she plans to assasinate radical political journalist Jean-Paul Marat and is sure to be executed for it. Finally, they meet the infamous Marie-Antoinette (Dragon founder Meredith Hagedorn), looking to clear up some of the inflammatory and unfair propaganda dogging her name and legacy. The foursome argues and commiserates while the threat of the guillotine hangs, quite literally, over their heads.
There's a lot of meta-talk about the role of art and theater, with de Gouges no doubt standing in for Gunderson as she ponders the meaning and value of her work, struggles with writer's block and makes plenty of in-jokes for people familiar with the theater world. The script is mostly written and delivered in very modern, casual-American vernacular with some detours into more formal, old-fashioned speechifying. This juxtaposition can be jarring but it mostly works well, keeping the audience on their toes between laughter and solemnity. Not all of the humor is successful (repeated "Les Miserables" references and jokes are made, for instance, despite that story taking place many years after "The Revolutionists" events, and quickly grow tired) but on the whole, the structure is well-crafted, with knowing winks about the dreaded play-within-a-play format, puppets and even throwing in a few songs, all of which are utilized at some point.
The four actors are excellent. Hagedorn's doomed Marie-Antoinette ("Citizen Cake," as she is mockingly called by Angelle) has a charming veneer of clueless, ditsy frivolity with a good heart and keener brain than she is given credit for underneath it. Of all the characters, it is her story that will be the one that people most remember throughout history. In "The Revolutionists," she is aware of this fact, and, ultimately, sorry for it. Jones gives a wild-eyed, innocent energy to Corday, who must balance her zeal to eliminate a monster ("I have killed one man to save 100,000," she bravely states at her execution) with her fears about how she will be remembered. Thompson, whose Angelle is the voice of reason and unwavering strength, gives an earthy warmth and humor to what otherwise might be a generic symbol of intersectionality. Jones and Thompson also have beautiful singing voices that soar together in lovely harmony. In the lead role of de Gouges, Marquis is splendid as well, owning her character's doubts, fears and, ultimately, heroism.
Dragon's production boasts comely costumes by Kae Jenny-Spencer and bold, colorful lighting and set design by Nathanael Card. Gunderson is currently one of the most popular, oft-produced playwrights and it's understandable why when viewing "The Revolutionists." It's fresh, funny and irreverent while also educational and moving.
For all its enjoyable screwball humor and self-deprecating awareness, "The Revolutionists" is centered around a serious point: History belongs, to a large extent, to the winners, with the voices of others either silenced, erased or misconstrued. The play is one small step toward amplifying a few of these voices.
What: "The Revolutionists."
Where: Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City.
When: Through Feb. 10.
Info: Go to Dragon Productions Theatre Company.