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BWW Review: Gunderson's EMILIE Comes to Life in TWTP Production

Evelyn O'Neal Brush as Emilie du Chatelet

Evelyn O'Neal Brush's bravura performance is reason enough to see Tennessee Women's Theater Project's production of Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, but clearly it's Lauren Gunderson's play itself that should sell tickets. Emilie (as we will refer to the play from here on out - at least to the conclusion of this review) is an engaging treatise on the life and times of the mathematician, physicist, writer and critic, whose supreme intellect and prodigious literary output during the Age of the Enlightenment made her both notorious and admired at a time when women were thought of primarily as chattel.

Directed by TWTP artistic director Maryanna Clarke, Emilie is a spirited and imaginative journey (there's time travel, which guarantees glorious interplay of time and space, with anachronisms galore!) through the life of du Chatelet, whose friends and admirers included some of the leading figures of the Enlightenment - and although she was involved with a number of notable male figures of the time, Gunderson focuses primarily upon her relationship with Voltaire, the witty and urbane, yet monstrously egotistical historian, philosopher, playwright and wit. Gunderson writes her characters with a literary flair that is underscored by her genuine understanding of them - both as people and as historic figures - that ensure they captivate within the strictures of the play she has written for them.

Although du Chatelet's role in the development of modern physics and her stature among the great thinkers of the Enlightenment may come to some as a surprise, her intellect and, more importantly, the way she put her own thoughts and discoveries out into a male-dominated world deem her worthy of note and an ideal subject for theatrical treatment.

When first we meet her in Gunderson's play, Emilie is standing center stage bathed in a bright light, obviously startled and stunned by her intergalactic journey. She figures out rather quickly that she is, indeed, onstage and takes charge of the opportunity to defend the choices she made in life, to lead a debate (however largely internal that debate may be) about her role in the Enlightenment and her revolutionary presence at a pivotal time in the world's protracted ascent into the future.

Brush is, at once, delightful and provocative as Emilie du Chatelet, playing her with focus as she makes her way about the stage, delivering her lines in such a way that is both charming and self-effacing. Joined onstage by an ensemble of four actors who become a variety of people who move in and out of Emilie's life, Brush commands the stage with a compelling reading of the role that beautifully engages the audience, enlisting them as her confidants and willing co-conspirators as her life unfolds before them.

While Emilie plots her efforts to determine what most rules our brains here on earth, from her otherworldly perspective, she tallies the evidence herein to divine if it's our hearts or our brains that determine our route to our own personal enlightenment. Can love vs. knowledge be quantified in such a way to explain human interaction? Is it indeed mind over matter that plots our course? Does the brain overrule the heart?

Perhaps the greatest work of her life is her translation of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica - along with her commentary on and criticism of his work, which includes her own contribution to Newtonian mechanics, suggesting an additional conservation law of energy - the discussion of which makes up the greater part of Gunderson's second act in her play.

Brush demonstrates Emilie's obvious passions with an even-handed portrayal that makes her character all the more appealing, her thought processes made more accessible by her expansive nature and genuine spirit. Through her performance, Brush brings Emilie's spirit to life with a vigor and energy that transforms the script's more intellectual - and we daresay wonky - moments potentially more portentous. In the process, Emilie becomes an altogether more human presence rather than a mere historical figure and her struggles - both personal and professional - play out before us in a far more intriguing manner.

In her real, but completely extraordinary, life, du Chatelet was interested in a wide range of topics, including everything from the Forces Vive (so beautifully distilled in Gunderson's play) to her own interpretation of the Bible and a scheme not unlike today's "derivatives" that allow financiers creative ways to deal with money and payments. Her life, her education, her legacy - everything, in fact, about Emilie du Chatelet - is endlessly fascinating and worthy of our consideration and attention.

Gunderson's play is an ideal choice for Tennessee Women's Theater Project's current season: Its protagonist is a woman who is a compelling, likable and beguiling genius. Largely unknown to audiences, who are certain to be enlightened by her story, Emilie is one of the women who are often ignored by historians (because the people who have written history to date are mostly men, saddled with the prejudices and bigotry of misogyny) and who deserve our respect and undivided attention. With such a performance as the one given by Brush, who commands the stage with a graceful ease, Emilie du Chatelet demands more from her audience than their simple rapt attention: Get thee to the research desk at once, gentle readers.

Brush is given able and admirable support by Clarke's ensemble of actors, including Obadiah Ewing-Roush as the sometimes contemptible, always competitive Voltaire who finds himself smitten with Emilie from the time of their first meeting only to be troubled by her soaring intellect, which leaves him wallowing in self-pity at times as her notoriety eclipses his. Ewing-Roush makes a welcome return to the Nashville stage with this role.

The other three members of the ensemble - Britt Byrd, Kaul Bluestone and Evan Taylor Williams - seamlessly and effectively become other people who find themselves in the orbit of Emilie's life.

The multi-talented Byrd portrays both Emilie as a younger woman (the elder Emilie's time travel prevents her from touching another character, that tactile release denied her in the afterlife) and as her love-starved daughter who wants to be more like her mother than the role to which society has assigned her, to great effect, showing off her range as an actor with full commitment.

Bluestone, perfectly strident as Emilie's mother, also portrays a vapid and condescending matron visiting Emilie's estate to help mask the true nature of her relationship with Voltaire, showing off a wickedly comedic streak that is, at once, sharply drawn and wonderfully elegant. She adds an impressive entry to her already starry resume with her performance.

As all the other men in Emilie's life - such as her diffident husband and adoring younger lover - Williams gives a splendid performance, showing off a flair for such roles that heretofore has been untapped on local stages. Williams proves himself an ideal choice for Gunderson's demanding play.

Emily Sue Laird's lovely set design helps to create an ambience of the French aesthetic, without being particularly literal in her translation, and Kassia Dombroski's costumes are well-suited to the play's time and place. Katie Gant's evocative lighting helps to direct the audience's attention to where it needs to be in a production that moves along at a good pace while telling its story.

Clarke's direction is well-focused (not unlike Gant's lighting) and it is clear that she has the utmost respect for Gunderson's script and the characters found in it, yet she utilizes a sense of lightness that prevents the play to become bogged down with too much exposition.

  • Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight. By Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Maryanna Clarke. Presented by Tennessee Women's Theater Project, at the Z. Alexander Looby Theater, Nashville. Through March 6. For details, go to Running time: 2 hours (including one 15-minute intermission).

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis