'The Revolutionists' at Theatre Horizon: Comedy, martyrdom and feminism offer a mixed bag

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Jessica Bedford in "The Revolutionists," through Feb. 25 at Theatre Horizon.

As soon as you walk in the door, Theatre Horizon hits you between the eyeballs. On the walls of their spacious foyer are 35 portraits of notable women. A few women are from Norristown and Philadelphia, many others from around the world. #WomenWhoDare is the focus of their new season.

The Revolutionists (2017) by Lauren Gunderson, an activist play and comedic romp, could not be more apropos. The central character, Olympe de Gouges, is the first portrait on the wall. She penned “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” (1791), and endured martyrdom during the Reign of Terror.

With mob noise in the background, Olympe talks to fellow reformer, Marianne, an abolitionist from Haiti and the play’s only fictional character. Olympe has soured on the French Revolution. She passionately wants to write about it, but complains of writer’s block. Then, two firebrand women barge into her studio to solve her problem.

They are a hoot. Charlotte Corday, who later assassinates Jean-Paul Marat “because he’s horrible,” wants Olympe to immortalize the deed with a grand sentence. Soon, Marie Antoinette pops in, chirping, “I’m here for the rewrite.” She wants Olympe to restore her historical reputation.

Director Kathryn MacMillan imposes her vision. Brian Dudkiewicz’s set design of Olympe’s studio, full of brass and mirror walls, suggests the women are closed in on themselves. Striking costumes by Janus Stefanowicz evoke personality, while the lighting design of Lily Fossner does double duty, accentuating dramatic moments and suggesting scene changes.

Claire Inie-Richards is comically deadpan as Charlotte, while Jessica Bedford lights the stage up with her delightfully flighty Marie. Special kudos go to Charlotte Northeast who plays the tough role of fearful Olympe, and to Barrymore winner Jaylene Clark Owens who somehow finds a way to make you like indignant, sermonizing Marianne.

The Revolutionists is a mixed bag. Act 1 rambles, but intensity picks up as the Reign of Terror closes in. The brief trials of Charlotte, Marie Antoinette, and Olympe are well-staged and affecting. The tone of the show is also a mix. Though largely comic with witty lines and situation twists, martyrdom is not something you easily laugh away.

Above all, The Revolutionists is polemical, marching in lockstep with #WomenWhoDare. All night the show flirts with breaking the fourth wall, full of wink-and-nod references to theater. At the end, it has a full-fledged Bertolt Brecht moment. Even as overhead lights came on, Olympe formally addresses the audience, delivering a manifesto on the need for theater to tackle big issues.

THEATER

The Revolutionists

  • Through Feb 25, Theatre Horizon, 401 E. Dekalb St., Norristown PA. Tickets: $34 - $39.  Information: 610-283-2230, theatrehorizon.org