HOUSTON — A playwright writes a play about a playwright writing a play. The characters are fictitious imaginings of “real” historical figures, imagined not only by the playwright, but also by the playwright within the play. Is the truth more or less real for all that?
Such are the problems of meta theater, problems that Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists” tackles with gusto and relish.
Still with me? I’ll explain.
The regional premiere of the play kicks off Main Street Theater’s 40th season and it is a delight. The play centers around Olympe de Gouges, a French playwright who was active during the revolution, as she struggles to write her final play.
She is joined early on by a black woman, Marianne Angelle, a Caribbean abolitionist, a “friend” off whom Olympe (Shannon Emerick) bounces ideas and philosophies as she attempts to write a play that advances equality for all. Olympe has writer’s block about the direction her play should take, even proposing a musical — “No one wants to see a musical about the French revolution,” Marianne says, eliciting a healthy chuckle from the audience.
The self-referential quips, in the hands of a less skilled wordsmith could be trite, but Gunderson’s script crackles with anachronistic nods to its own cleverness.
When Charlotte Corday, the young assassin who killed the zealous revolutionist Jean-Paul Marat enters, she asks for only one thing — a line. She seeks a playwright who can give her the line that will commit her act to history. Molly Searcy plays Charlotte with youthful conviction of the righteousness of her cause. That her action, rather than ending the reign of terror will, in fact, only make a martyr of Marat, is something her lack of cynicism cannot comprehend.
Finally, the gang is joined by Marie Antoinette, portrayed as a preening comic character who nonetheless has an occasional profound thought among the frippery and folly of her upbringing. Bree Welch plays the doomed queen with impeccable comic timing and flair, and no little pathos, although the entire ensemble create an organic whole, from the thoughtful Olympe to the earnest Marianne (Callina Situka) to the steadfast and committed Charlotte.
As the action progresses, we see that each woman is trapped by their destiny, guiding Olympe to finish a play whose ending is already pre-ordained. There is no place in the revolution for equality of the sexes. This is a revolution of liberté, égalité and fraternité, but one that does not include sororité.
The language is modern, and references to, for the characters, future world events, are thrown in (Marie Antoinette jokes about her lack of real power by saying she could not even get a youth fitness program at the palace, a clear reference to Michelle Obama’s activism).
The real point is that women, while often fighting as hard for change as their male counterparts, rarely reap the benefits of that so-called progress. When Olympe presents her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” in 1791, she does so with the realization that her dreams for the revolution are not shared by the ruling assembly.
In the 319 years since the French revolution, women have made strides toward equality. But the very fact that Gunderson’s play resonates today shows how much work is still to be done.
Despite the guillotine, which literally looms over the proceedings, this play is witty and bright, thoughtful and intelligent, and the characters never lose hope for a kind of world they know they will never see.
Vive la revolution. Vive “The Revolutionists.”
“The Revolutionists” runs through Oct. 2. Main Street Theater is located at 2540 Times Blvd. in Houston. For information, visit www.mainstreettheater.com.