The French Revolution that began in 1789, like the American one before it, is not known for its women fighters. The Enlightenment manifesto of the uprising is notably entitled the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Women are not a part of it.
Olympe de Gouges, a playwright who remains obscure to most Americans, was an outspoken feminist of that era. Her own manifesto, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, challenged the inequality of the other Declaration’s democratic principles. She was also an avid abolitionist and supported freeing the enslaved Africans in the New World French colony of Saint-Domingue, which would become independent Haiti in the early 1800s. She supported Marie Antoinette as a constitutional monarch. She was a part of the relatively moderate Girondist movement during the Revolution, as was Charlotte Corday, the woman who in 1793 assassinated Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the more radical Jacobins. The murder of Marat had the unfortunate effect of turning him into a martyr, and the Jacobins gained power and initiated the Reign of Terror, in which tens of thousands of Girondists and others were guillotined, including Corday and de Gouges, and, along with them, Marie Antoinette.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson, in her self-described “feisty” 2018 comedy, The Revolutionists, places de Gouges at the center of the maelstrom of Parisian political life in 1793. In Gunderson’s play, de Gouges’s writings and musings come alive as a vaudeville spectacle in which she, Corday, and Marie Antoinette (neither of whom de Gouges ever actually met) — joined by a composite fictional character known as Marianne Angelle, the wife of a Haitian Creole revolutionary — conspire and argue about what to do as activists. That spectacle has now arrived at the Outer Cape: through Sept. 17, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater is presenting The Revolutionists on its Julie Harris Stage.
The meta-conceit of The Revolutionists is that the four women in it are enacting a creative mix of history and fantasy that is largely in de Gouges’s head, even though their onstage encounters are presented as real. The unfinished play that de Gouges is writing throughout The Revolutionists with the quill stuffed in her cap, entitled France Saved, or the Tyrant Dethroned is indeed, a historical document, one which was used to justify her execution. Yet all of what we witness onstage at WHAT is an act of 21st-century revisionism — a way of giving women’s roles in the Revolution the aura of consequence they have historically been denied. There’s a sub-theme about the power of words versus the necessity of action, but sororité over fraternité is the heart of the matter.
To further her self-conscious update on history, Gunderson uses contemporary ways of speaking and thinking as a deliberate, winking anachronism. As a result, the play is often quite funny, despite its serious subject and the grave outcome. The costumes in the WHAT production, by Carol Sherry, emphasize the play’s cartoonish fantasy elements, exposing the panniers, or side hoops, that supported 18th-century dresses. And director Megan Nussle heightens the squeals and gestures and speed of the dialogue and action, making it unequivocally comic. Likewise, the aural and visual representations of the guillotine in J. Pizzuti’s set have a fanciful horror-flick vibe.
The best things about The Revolutionists at WHAT are its four lead performances. Olympe de Gouges, as played by Christina Leidel, is a self-doubting, openly conflicted woman, despite her courage and idealistic ambitions. De Gouges’s feminism was way ahead of its time, but Leidel plays her as a dreamer, not a trailblazer. She relies on the support of her sisterhood, even though it’s largely imaginary.
As Marianne Angelle, Andréa Bellamore is regal, compassionate, and wise: she’s something of a straight player in this clownish quartet. By providing a proud, sober complement to Leidel, she makes many of the playwright’s laughs possible.
In contrast, Hannah Hakim’s Charlotte Corday is explosive and monomaniacal in her determination to kill Marat. And she’s kooky: there are touches of Linda Blair and Squeaky Fromme in her frantic murderousness.
Paige O’Connor as Marie Antoinette nearly steals the show. Though her program bio describes her as a recent alum of N.Y.U. and Second City, she plays the doomed queen with the expert comic timing of a seasoned vet. Her sassy smile is infectious, and her Marie Antoinette makes glorious fun of herself, dropping red ribbons with innocent abandon. What better way to rehab the reputations of women in revolutionary France than to portray the hapless Marie, its symbol of misunderstood decadence, as a dainty smart-ass?
Women in Revolt
The event: The Revolutionists, a play by Lauren Gunderson
The time: Though Sept. 17, Wednesday through Saturday (and Tuesday, Sept. 13) at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 4 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, 2357 Route 6
The cost: $25-$40; seniors $22.50-$36; students $15; plus $2.50 fees, at what.org or 508-349-9428