Reviewed by George Basler
The first thing audience members see when they arrive for The Revolutionists at Binghamton University is a striking set with a huge guillotine prominently on display.
Obviously, things are not going to end well for the play’s four characters as they confront the Reign of Terror, the bloodiest stretch of the French Revolution in which people lost their heads at an alarming rate.
But, before tragedy hits, there are laughs galore in Lauren Gunderson’s intriguing comedy/drama. which is being given a fine production by Binghamton University’s Theater Department. The show opened last weekend (Oct. 5 and 6)  and returns next weekend (Oct. 19-21).
The Revolutionists is an inventive mixture of 18th Century history and 21st Century sensibilities, with a little screwball comedy thrown into the mix. In between the laughs, the play touches on topics of feminism, the purpose of theater and the corrupting influence of political extremism.
The mixture is an offbeat one, to say the least. What makes it work is the cleverness and comic precision of Gunderson’s writing. She also skillfully switches the mood from comedy to tragedy as the play progresses. The four-woman student cast, directed by BU professor Tom Kremer, does a first-rate job catching both the humorous and serious moments.
Gunderson, who specializes in writing about historical events with a feminist twist, is on a roll. A recent nationwide survey by American Theatre magazine reported that she was the most produced playwright in regional theater in the 2017-18 season.
While Gunderson did a copious amount of research to write The Revolutionists, the play is not an historical drama by any stretch of the imagination. The setting of the French Revolution is merely the backdrop on which Gunderson hangs her ideas and observations.
Three of the play’s four characters were real persons. In order of appearance, they are Olympe de Gouges, a feminist and now mostly forgotten playwright who went to the guillotine for criticizing the Revolutionary government; Charlotte Corday, an aspiring assassin who lost her head for knifing writer Jean Paul Marat, a leading supporter of the Reign of Terror; and Marie Antoinette, the former queen of France who also meets her fate on the guillotine.
The fourth character, Marianne Angelle, is a composite of various women who fought against slavery and for Haitian independence from France.
The action, which takes place in de Gouges’ study, opens with the playwright (Margaret Leisenheimer) suffering a severe case of writer’s block as she tries to pen an important play about women’s role in the Revolution. Just as she’s ready to pull her hair out, Angelle (Brianna Simpkins) shows up at her door to demand de Gouges drop the plan and write a pamphlet in support of her causes.
Shortly thereafter, Corday (Liz Sierra) crashes the party demanding that de Gouges write her a memorable last line before she leaves to assassinate Marat. The last to arrive is Marie Antoinette (Amelia Pena), who wants de Gouges to rewrite her life.
The four BU actors play off each other terrifically well. Sierra is perfectly cast as the would-be assassin with a distinctly bad-ass attitude. Simpkins is remarkable as the Haitian revolutionary whose strength, dignity and eventual heartbreak provide the moral center of the play. Leisenheimer gives a spirited performance that shows de Gouges’ neuroses and self-absorption along with her strength and final heroism.
Finally, Pena shows great comic timing as the doomed Marie Antoinette. Quite simply with her ditsy manner and cutesy voice, Pena comes close to stealing the show. She also makes her character human and sympathetic.
During the play, the women fling barbs and zingers at each other, many of which are filled with humorous anachronisms. (One of the funniest continuing jokes is the characters’ attempts to have de Gouges write them into a Broadway musical.) In the end, though, they form bonds of friendship and understanding that gives The Revolutionists its laughter and poignancy.
The Revolutionists has its soft spots. The character’s bickering about whether theater should be a distraction or a call to action gets tedious. Gunderson’s writing is didactic at times, and the ending gets a bit heavy-handed as she hits the audience over the head with her feminist perspective
For the most part, though, Gunderson’s imagination, inventiveness and ready wit keep the play from veering off track. The Revolutionists is funny, touching and totally original.
Besides Kremer and the BU cast, Holden Gunster and Rebecca Verpile deserve major applause for their scenic and costume design respectively. The play’s set is a masterful piece of work.
IF YOU GO: The Revolutionists will be performed at 8 p.m. Oct. 19 and 20 and at 2 p.m. Oct. 21 in the Anderson Center’s Chamber Hall on campus. Tickets are $18 ($16 for faculty, staff, seniors and alumni; $10 for students). Call 607-777-ARTS, or visit