Spoiler alert: The women in "The Revolutionists" get their heads lopped off. But to hear director Shelli Place tell it, there's riotous humor to be had between the sharp delivery of their lines and the falling of the guillotine blade.
"Comedy is about contrast and what we have here is the pathos of the reign of terror next to the snappy 21st-century dialogue," said Place, co-founder of Prime Productions, which is putting on the show at Park Square Theatre. "It's a metaplay on steroids with lots of verbal gymnastics and tonal references to things like 'Hamilton,' so audiences need to buckle up."
"Revolutionists," Lauren Gunderson's play about Marie Antoinette and three other figures from the French Revolution, is finally opening Friday after a series of setbacks Prime leaders call "hiccups." The latest was the recent announcement that host theater Park Square was canceling the remainder of its season so it can restructure and save itself.
Prime is grateful to Park Square for its partnership, Place said, and "for its many big-ticket in-kind items like rent and box office support."
Prime had first planned to stage "Revolutionists" in fall 2020 when COVID-19 was raging. Add to that fiscal challenges of a sector where companies operate on paper-thin margins and cast changes.
A typical production for Prime used to cost about $65,000, but COVID protocols have added another 30% to that figure.
"It's for our safety, so it's done for the right reasons, but it's still crazy," Place said.
Still, the company perseveres because it wants to tell important stories, and also employs older actors in an industry that often nudges women of a certain age offstage.
"This play is a fascinating look at a part of European history that many of us know little about," said Prime co-founder Alison Edwards.
While Marie Antoinette, played by Jane Froiland, is the most famous of the characters in "Revolutionists," all are based on real women. Edwards depicts playwright Olympe de Gouges, who was executed for her writings and political positions.
Charlotte Corday (Jasmine Porter) was killed after assassinating French Revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub. And Marianne Angelle (Tia Marie Tanzer), named for the figure that embodies the French Republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity, was amalgamated by Gunderson from several Haitian figures who were active in French Revolutionary circles.
"All of these women are striving for their rights, their souls and their survival," said Edwards. "They are determined to change the world however they can."
Place traveled to Paris last summer to do research for the play. When she visited some of the sites where the women breathed their last breaths, she could still feel the eeriness of history some 230 years later.
"I sat in the cells where these women were held and saw the bonnets that they wore on their way to execution — ooh," Place said. "The guillotine was all about efficiency so they would cut the hair of those who would be executed and put a bonnet on the women. Then they would take them from their houses in a cart through the city."
"Revolutionists" is important not simply as history, Edwards said, but for what it tells us today.
"My character says, what if it starts off as a comedy and ends as a drama," said Edwards. "That's accurate about how some people face adversity. At first, they don't take it as seriously as they ought to."
That's true for a lot of things, including a pandemic whose aftereffects continue at the personal and professional level.
"I've discovered it's harder to learn lines than before the pandemic," Edwards said. "All the things that used to be no-brainers, like how do I prepare for a first rehearsal, I have to think about now."
Audiences also got out of the theater habit. And now companies like Prime are trying everything they can to win them back.
"The bottom line is getting patrons out of their yoga pants and into the theater," Place said.
"We don't care what they wear," Edwards quickly interjected. "Just come."
Who: By Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Shelli Place for Prime Productions.
Where: Park Square Theatre, 20 W. 7th Place, St. Paul.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 3 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends April 16.
Tickets: $40-$55. 651-291-7005 or parksquaretheatre.org.