BWW Review: WSC Avant Bard's EMILIE: LA MARQUISE DU CHATELET DEFEDS HER LIFE TONIGHT a Heady, Brilliant Evening
With the phenomenal success of last year's film Hidden Figures, women of great mathematical skill have finally started to receive the recognition they deserve. And it should come as no surprise that they've always been with us: from Aspasia and Hypatia of ancient times to the women of NASA, there have always been women with the skills and creativity required to redefine our world by the numbers.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson has been a part of this effort for years, producing a trilogy of plays about great women of science, among them co-creator of the modern computer Ada Lovelace ("Ada and the Engine") and Harvard astronomer Henrietta Leavitt ("Silent Sky"). For the opening of WSC Avant Bard's new season, Director Rick Hammerly has chosen Gunderson's portrait of perhaps the most intriguing figure of the Enlightenment era in France, Émilie du Châtelet. As effervescent and fun as it is filled with the world of ideas (and equations), Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight is a heady evening, bringing a great women back to brilliant life both onstage and in our collective memory.
A woman of means, and married to a military officer who was conveniently out of town on campaign much of the time, Émilie - also known as la Marquise de Châtelet - established herself as one of the most brilliant minds of a revolutionary cadre of thinkers in early 18th century Paris.
The Enlightenment, born out of an especially violent period in European history, asked new questions about the natural and supernatural worlds alike, and developed shockingly new answers. Émilie's chief talent was in mathematics; in an age that saw the creation of Calculus, she translated and dared to amend the gravitational theories of British physicist Sir Isaac Newton (he of falling-apple fame). Her ideas, and her calculations, sometimes generated controversy, but she gave as good as she got and defended herself with a fierce intelligence few of us could muster. It's anyone's guess where her brilliant mind might have taken her if she hadn't died from childbirth at the age of 42.
(Which might not seem that young to some of you, but it is - trust me).
Sara Barker takes on the title role and inhabits it with strength, relish and sensitivity. As the play's title suggests this is a from-the-grave piece in which the title character looks back on her whole life and career; as a result, Barker's Émilie is unburdened by the Enlightenment period's humongous periwigs (like the one you see in her publicity shot) and is instead free to appear onstage in natural hair and hip-looking jeans. Meanwhile Costume Designer Danielle Preston decks her out in a smart, period-looking embroidered shirt/waistcoat (OK, I'll admit I have no idea what to call it, except to say that it's a stylish touch).
Opposite Barker is Brit Herring as Voltaire, Émilie's longtime lover and a man constantly on the run from the court of King Louis XV because of his irreverent, anti-monarchical writing. The two of them set up shop (so to speak) in her country estate, in large part to prevent his capture by the King's men.
Voltaire fancied himself a deep thinker but is remembered today more for his wit (he wrote the satirical novel "Candide") and his sexual appetites. As Gunderson shows, their relationship was one in which his comic sensibility would have complemented her more serious-minded approach to the world. Herring is clearly having entirely too much fun, and his Voltaire is the ultimate ladies' man (note the plural), unburdened by any concerns for fidelity or (given his affair with his own niece) taboos.
There are some fine turns by the supporting cast here, each in a number of roles - Lisa Hodsoll, Billie Krishawn and Steve Lebens each show their talent for comic turns. What is puzzling to this critic is that Krishawn, cast as Émilie's younger and living self (Soubrette), has so little to say. Gunderson's conceit is that Émilie is watching her life play out before our eyes, and although her 'dead' persona spends the bulk of the play talking with everyone, Émilie -in a twist-can't actually touch any of the people in her past life. That job is left to Krishawn's character, who gets to hug, kiss, and - ahem - whatever with Voltaire & co. As a result, Krishawn's Soubrette can't really engage in much dialogue here and is reduced to little more than pantomime. Given Krishawn's talents this is a huge disappointment; but it is Gunderson's dramaturgical inconsistency that is to blame here.
Set Designer Greg Stevens has created an intriguing environment, in which everything from the floors to the windows are used by Barker's Émilie as a blackboard on which to keep track of her calculations, her loves, and her losses, and Lighting Designer Joseph R. Walls has great success working this in-the-round staging.
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission.
Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight runs through November 12 at Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA.
Tickets are available online at AvantBard.org/tickets or by calling 703-418-4808.