Lauren Gunderson is the most-produced living playwright in America this season, and if you catch “The Book of Will” or “The Revolutionists,” this is what you will find:
●Whip-smart historical figures, hyper-literate and talking fast. "Will," now at Round House Theatre and around the country, is about the loyal members of Shakespeare's troupe who painstakingly gathered his scattered scripts for the First Folio after the Bard died. A madcap adventure, that.
"The Revolutionists," now at Baltimore's Everyman Theatre and around the country, finds the real-life playwright Olympe de Gouges besieged by Marie Antoinette, Jean-Paul Marat's assassin Charlotte Corday and Caribbean revolutionary Marianne Angelle as the Paris guillotine lops heads during the Reign of Terror.
“That’s no way to start a comedy,” Olympe quips in the play’s typically irreverent style. Each woman needs Olympe’s writing talents — but for plays, or pamphlets?
●Laughter. The in-jokes get pushy in “Will,” which is over-larded with thespian bombast and twisted Bard references. I mean, running jokes about “Pericles”? Gunderson has a theater geek’s tendency to be super-meta.
On the other hand, Mitchell Hebert gets to chew the scenery as Shakespeare’s leading man Richard Burbage and then create a dry, bitter and very funny portrayal of rival playwright Ben Jonson. Kimberly Gilbert makes a sparkling appearance as Shakespeare’s “dark lady,” who bristles with inside knowledge and suggestiveness.
In the less-predictable “The Revolutionists,” Charlotte Corday, of all people, is a flat-out riot. Emily Kester is a manic presence from the instant her Corday appears in frightening navy blue lipstick and frosty blond hair, matching her spectacular dress (David Burdick’s high-style costumes are terrific).
“You can write my line while I practice my stabbing and scary eyes,” Corday tells Olympe as Kester’s wild gaze briefly stops the show.
Beth Hylton gets punchlines by the dozen, too, as a megawatt Marie Antoinette with a night-light brain, and Dawn Ursula likewise nails jokes as Angelle (this merry history's only composite character) critiques Olympe and cuts down whoever needs cutting down with the drippingly intoned phrase "I mean . . ."
●Sentimentality. It's the Achilles' heel of "Will," especially, which repeats over and over how important it is that Shakespeare's plays are preserved for posterity. "Will" aims to share an executive suite with the brand-name "Shakespeare in Love," the Oscar-winning film that's now the most-produced play in regional theaters. But "Will" is more fawning than frisky.
That general sense of awe dogs “The Revolutionists,” too. Is art really any practical use as political resistance? The discussion gets dry, and of course the pro-art script stacks the deck. The constant campaigning celebrates creativity, yet also feels nervous about art’s minority status then and now.
Gunderson's characters are always on high boil with sharp things to say, but they're not always given genuine conflict to play. (The hand-wringing "It can't be done!" as actors track down scripts in "Will" doesn't cut it as a plot.) Gunderson's "Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight," staged this fall by WSC Avant Bard, is an intensely explanatory portrait of yet another historical figure (in this case a physicist), and in the title role Sara Barker was as fired up by the possibilities of science as Megan Anderson's Olympe is by the power of writing. The pleasure of "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley," co-written with Margot Melcon and staged last year at Round House, was the beloved characters, chatty and whispery as ever, and the sparkling imitation Jane Austen language. The plot was the platform for the performances, not vice versa.
"You're a writer-y kind of writer," a character says of Olympe in a line that sounds like Gunderson glimpsing herself in the mirror. Her smart, fact-driven, science-friendly characters — especially women past and present — give Gunderson a definite silhouette, even when she departs in more contemporary-set plays such as "I and You" (a surprise-ending two character drama of teens studying Walt Whitman) and "Exit, Pursued By a Bear" (a "revenge comedy" about a wife strapping her husband to a chair and teaching him about his mistakes). Her plays are an education, reveling in knowledge and detail. "Will" is at its very best when it hacks cleanly through the weeds of how exactly publishing and printing was done in the early 17th century.
Ryan Rilette directs the audience-friendly “Will” on a big two-story Elizabethan set with winning lead turns from Todd Scofield and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as the actors on a hunt. Casey Stangl has more tones to work with in “The Revolutionists,” and she generates a screwball pace (wonderfully nailed by her acting quartet) that leaves room for the second act’s slashes of drama. The feminist echoes ring out: You cheer along as these modern-sounding women erupt in profane defiance.
You also sense a hollow spot in these exercises, a potential untapped. The prolific Gunderson may continue in a productive, produce-able key for seasons to come. You wonder if she might also slow down and write something that’s not just witty and interesting and hero worship-y, but complicated, truly gnarly and maybe great.
The Book of Will, by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Ryan Rilette. Set design, Paige Hathaway; lights, Jesse Belsky; costumes, Kendra Rai; sound design/composer, Matthew M. Nielson. With Katie Kleiger, Marni Penning, Brandon McCoy, Michael Russotto, Christopher Michael Richardson and Cody LeRoy Wilson. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Through Dec. 24 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Tickets $36-$65. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.
The Revolutionists, by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Casey Stangl. Set and projection design, Daniel Ettinger; lights, Elizabeth Harper; sound design, C. Andrew Mayer. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Through Jan. 7 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St., Baltimore. Tickets $43-$65. Call 410-752-2208 or visit everymantheatre.org.