Suppose you are a playwright and Marie Antoinette waltzes into your apartment wanting you to write her story. This would be after an abolitionist and an assassin asked you to do the same thing. You would write, of course, and the result might be something like Lauren Gunderson’s witty yet unconventional “The Revolutionists,” continuing at the Long Beach Playhouse (LBPH) through Oct. 1.
The playwright in “The Revolutionists” is Olympe de Gouges (Meredith Miranda), who was an actual French writer and activist who died during the post-revolutionary “Reign of Terror” that saw thousands of public executions by guillotine in the name of the new republic.
But in the play, the playwright might also be Gunderson herself, or someone like her, writing in the language of our time and wanting to produce an amazing play about the revolution that would be remembered forever—possibly even a musical.
Instead, de Gouges is called into the service of Black revolutionary Marianne Angelle (Tara Brown), who wants to abolish slavery in her French Caribbean homeland and needs de Gouges to write a manifesto.
Similarly, “female assassin” Charlotte Corday (Stacy Park) shows up at de Gouges’s apartment to demand she pen words for when Corday will be convicted of stabbing the revolutionary radical Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub because she blames him for causing the Reign of Terror.
Soon enough, Marie Antoinette (Amara Phelps) floats into the apartment as well—in “let them eat cake” finery and a disposition as saccharin as her sweet-tooth—asking de Gouges to essentially rewrite her disparaged legacy.
Despite de Gouges’s efforts and frustrating yet funny attempts to weave all of their stories into a play, and possibly a musical, the women end up speaking their own words as they stand one by one on the guillotine scaffold, making their own strong final statements.
Along the way, though, they share their women’s stories of children, husbands and some of the ways they’ve been disrespected because of their gender—including the sadly true story of how Corday’s virginity is inspected (and confirmed) because no one believes a female could plan and execute an assassination without a man behind her.
The playwright has the hardest time when it’s her turn to find the right words before the guillotine, and this is where “The Revolutionists” takes an especially metatheatrical turn—even breaking the “fourth wall” to involve the audience—who are then both in the play and watching it.
We help the playwright arrive at the essence of why she writes and what she hopes to achieve, and it involves a song—because “songs stick”—about a beating heart.
The four actresses work fluidly together, though their characters are unique. Miranda plays de Gouges in a lively, modern way with good comic timing and is still believable as a writer, such as when de Gouges real-time describes what happens at an execution—though she can’t bring herself to see it through.
Brown plays abolitionist Angelle in an appealingly confident way, with a clear and warm delivery, especially when she’s impassioned, which is often. (Houston transplant Brown should have a bright future in local theatre.)
Park as assassin Corday seems to channel comedic actress Amy Schumer through both her physical mannerisms—not afraid to seem silly—and delivering her lines in a way that makes Corday’s situation both absurd and serious.
And Phelps is sheer delight as Marie Antoinette, embodying the condemned queen with graceful frivolity, a lilting voice and charming expressions under a giant beehive wig—unexpected truths sometimes dropping from her painted lips.
The women wear full-skirted dresses suggestive of the late-1770s (designed by Christina Bayer), though perhaps the rear bustles may not have been necessary, and more accessible pockets may have helped since so much depends on what they hold.
The set (Spencer Richardson) melds the playwright’s apartment featuring stacks of paper with a looming guillotine, and creative lighting (Donny Jackson) includes a headlight flashing quickly over the audience from above the stage when the guillotine blade drops.
Cleverly co-directed by Gregory Cohen and LBPH Executive Director Madison Mooney, “The Revolutionists” is an amusing but provocative play that explores—through four revolutionary women of yore—the significance of story and history (his-story or, in this play, “Hi, story!”). One only wishes some historical context or a timeline were given in the playbill.
And though the play may be trying to do too much—between its feminist takes, writerly woes, historical reflection and romantic notions—it’s ultimately entertaining and fun, thanks to an unusual structure that will keep you on your toes, and four dynamic actresses to lose your head over.
“The Revolutionists” continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through Oct. 1, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $14 to $24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit LBPlayhouse.org. Run time is two hours plus intermission. Proof of vaccination and masks required.