CAMBRIDGE — Art or action? Or art as action?
That is roughly the set of choices confronting four women — a feminist playwright, an anti-slavery activist from the Caribbean, the assassin Charlotte Corday, and none other than Marie Antoinette — in Lauren Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists.’’
Now at the Nora Theatre Company in a production directed by Courtney O’Connor, “The Revolutionists’’ is an inventive but flawed comedy of ideas from one of the most prolific playwrights in the country. Though it’s set in Paris during the 1793 Reign of Terror, Gunderson’s play addresses the question — always pertinent, but especially timely at this moment — of what a citizen’s obligations are in a time of political and social crisis, when inequality is rampant and change is urgently needed.
Still only 35, Gunderson has established herself as a nearly ubiquitous presence in regional theater, including in the Boston area. A new nationwide survey by American Theatre magazine found that she will be the most produced playwright of the 2017-18 season. (Last season’s survey found her second on the list, finishing just behind the late August Wilson.) Concluded the magazine: “It’s Gunderson’s America; we just live in it.’’
One of Gunderson’s specialties is refracting history through a feminist lens to recapture the stories of women neglected or misrepresented by posterity. In “Silent Sky,’’ seen at Boston’s Flat Earth Theatre company last season and currently at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre, she told the tale of the pioneering early-20th-century Cambridge astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. In “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight,’’ presented at the Nora Theatre Company three years ago, Gunderson explored the life and mind of Emilie du Chatelet, the 18th-century mathematician and physicist who was a lot more than just Voltaire’s lover.
“The Revolutionists’’ is similarly inspired by real-life historical figures, but despite a quartet of fine performances by O’Connor’s cast, I found it less satisfying than either “Silent Sky’’ or “Emilie’’ (not to mention Gunderson’s “I and You,’’ seen at Merrimack Rep, or “The Taming,’’ produced at Shakespeare & Company).
Among the chief pleasures of watching Gunderson’s plays are her remarkably fertile imagination, her fierce political conscience, and her piercing wit. Make no mistake, those qualities are evident in “The Revolutionists.’’ But too often here the wit detours into the self-indulgent glibness of a writer besotted with her own cleverness.
Nor does Gunderson avoid didacticism, a chief pitfall of any play of ideas. Unusually for this subtle playwright, the play sometimes seems to be straining to become a duel of aphorisms, and it’s laced with baldly declarative dialogue along the lines of “Fiction doesn’t matter if you’re only using it to hide from reality.’’
The writer to whom that is addressed is the French playwright and abolitionist Olympe de Gouges, who was executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror. (The shadow of the guillotine looms over “The Revolutionists.’’) Here she is portrayed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, who portrayed the title character in “Emilie’’ and is the Nora Theatre Company’s artistic director.
Olympe’s goal is to write a play that will champion women’s rights, that will be “about women showing the boys how revolution is done.’’ Her own worldview could use some broadening, however. “This is our time to make a better world for everyone,’’ Olympe begins grandly, before concluding with “who sees my plays.’’
Attempting to jolt her out of her self-absorption is Marianne Angelle (Alexandria King), a free black woman from the Caribbean who is working as a spy in Paris and who points to the hypocrisy of the French “fighting a revolution for freedom while running a slave colony in the West.’’
When Marianne suggests Olympe write a manifesto, the playwright composes a “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,’’ and heads off to read it aloud before the men of the National Assembly.
Rounding out the dramatis personae in “The Revolutionists’’ are former queen Marie Antoinette (Celeste Oliva), presented as a largely risible but occasionally poignant figure as she awaits execution, and young woman from the country named Charlotte Corday (Eliza Rose Fichter), already armed with the knife with which she will soon assassinate the bloodthirsty firebrand Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub, then be executed herself. (Corday’s murder of Marat also featured heavily in Peter Weiss’s classic “Marat/Sade.’’)
It is Charlotte and Marianne who embody the impulse to action, albeit in different forms. For Olympe, whose principal passion remains playwriting, there is no shaking the conviction that, as she puts it, “a story is more alive than a fact. A story is what lives.’’
Play by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Presented by Nora Theatre Company. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Nov. 12. Tickets $20-$61, 617-576-9278 ext. 1, www.centralsquaretheater.org
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