Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists,” which made its West Coast premiere in Eugene this weekend to kick off Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s 25th season, is about as meta as theater gets. It’s so meta it even makes fun of meta theater, on its way to skewering theatrical conventions from the daffiness of musicals and the need for really good exit lines to the unbearable sound of people unwrapping cough drops in the audience.
Don’t let that put you off. Yes, it tends to be a bit precious and self absorbed, like so much theater about theater (or, for that matter, like so many novels about novels and novelists). But it also creates a fast, funny and sometimes moving universe of four sympathetic women, who one by one face the ultimate challenges of life amid chaos and death by the guillotine.
Guillotine? That’s because they are all but one historical characters from the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution: Olympe de Gouges, a writer, played by Erica Towe; Marianne Angelle, an imagined Haitian revolutionary, played by Janelle Rae Davis; Charlotte Corday, the killer of Jean-Paul Marat; and Marie Antoinette, the deposed queen, played by Inga R. Wilson.
The four are characters in Olympe’s play, the writing of which is stalled with writer’s block as the lights come up on a spare, serviceable set by Geno Franco. The zingers pile up quickly in Gunderson’s dialog, as Olympe meets first Marianne, the warm-hearted feminist who wants the idea of “egalite” to be extended to slaves in the colonies, and then Charlotte, who is determined to make history by putting a stop to Marat, the architect of so much of the post-revolution horror.
The show is deftly directed by Elizabeth Helman. All four actors are great in their roles, but Wilson’s Marie Antoinette is exquisite. Her Valley Girlish depiction of the author of “Let them eat cake!” (That was taken out of context, she complains) combines frothy femininity — she has a girly thing for ribbons — with moments of perfect self awareness. Nicely done.
Hailey Henderson, as the crazy assassin, manages to pull out a moving depiction of the sudden terror she feels once she’s been sentenced to death by decapitation.
Period costumes are by Jeanette deJong, sound design is by Bradley Branam, and lighting is by Kat Matthews.
All in all, the play is a bit long, but not by much. It may try to pack in a few too many themes, from the relationship of art, history and politics to feminism and anti-colonialism, but at least it tries to do all this without ever taking itself too seriously. Even with its new-play glitches, “The Revolutionists” makes for a good, quick, entertaining evening.The French revolution has never been this funny.