Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Kim Stauffer as Emelie, Oliver Wadsworth as Voltaire, Joan Coombs as Madam, Suzanne Ankrum as Soubrette, Brendan Cataldo as Gentleman; photo: Enrico Spada
". . . Extend exponentially"
Kim Stauffer as Emelie; photo: Enrico Spada
Physics, mathematics, philosophy, a little bit of love and whole bunch of sex - what could be bad about such a combination, especially set in a century not our own? Add in Voltaire, French royalty, children grown into premature adulthood, opera and more sex, and that is what WAM Theatre has revived: its 2013 hit (formerly seen on the Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield) in a newly staged edition on the Shakespeare and Company Tina Packer stage in Lenox, MA. Revivals are not always as faithful to the original as this one is; its entire cast has returned to their roles on an expanded edition of the original set by Juliana von Haubrich with Govane Lohbauer's lovely costumes, Brad Berridge's intriguing projections and Vincent Olivieri's haunting score. You would expect the picture to be the one you remember but no - four years has brought about a miracle of conversion and the play emerges as an electric experience like nothing it has been before.
This is a wordy, intellectual play that is actually a heady, hedonistic experience. What was rapid, and only slightly vapid four years ago is now lightning-storm quick with an essence of smoke and fire moving the characters from one volatile scene to the next. Watching the company play with new delight in one another's presences, the honest reality in the text tansforms itself into the human struggle tripled in intensity.
At the start, La Marquise is dead, hoping to find a better ending for herself in her own revival of her life played out before her and with her. She takes part in some of the goings-on, but discovers early on that her presence can be felt in explosions of passion that mess up the scenes she hopes to relive. She must do what she has never done before - allow others to take her part, to play her role to become her living self. This is a wonderful gimmick and in director Kristen Van Ginhoven's wonderful, choreographed manner Emelie may never achieve her post-experience goals.
Kim Stauffer is a charming Emilie, a dynamic, sensual woman whose brain is as sensitive to the touch as her body. Garbed simply she is both figure and memory of a figure as she engages with those who made her life both worthwhile and challenging. Her voice is splendid and her figure dancing through the awkward challenge of post-death existence keeps us gasping each time she sets off her new reality from her previous life-force. When needed, the Soubrette, played by Suzanne Ankrum, takes over for her and finishes the moments that Stauffer's Emilie cannot play out for herself. Even when the play becomes a curiosity Stauffer keeps it real, so real in fact that we empathize with her need to be the woman she was who can now only witness the important physical relationships she so enjoyed.
Her mentor, lover, and challenger, the playwright, novelist, composer, scientist and philosopher François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire, is played with the exuberance of a young Mozart, the critical tones of a Humphrey Bogart and the mercenary, sexual challenges of a young Robert DeNiro. As he ages through the play Oliver Wadsworth as Voltaire is mesmerizing. Here is a man who will never take "no" for an answer, who believes Emilie when she says that "stories don't have solutions," who frowns on anyone else's passions but his own. Both of these characters assume that they know what is real and best in the work of Sir Isaac Newton and his German predecessor in theoretical physics and in math. Best when they are together, challenging and supporting in equal measure their own theories and each other's conclusions, Wadsworth's petulance and Stauffer's rages make for exciting, electric drama and even the laughs they get at times are in perfect harmony with the real hardships their characters inflict.
These two actors are personally responsible for any power outages in the neighborhood. They are consuming as much energy as they generate. I remember them as perfect matches four years ago; now they are so much more, a technical single entity splitting, like an atomic bomb might split, in the early stages of combustion.
Oliver Wadsworth as Voltaire; photo: Enrico Spada
Suzanne Ankrum as Gabrielle, Kim Stauffer as Emlie; photo: Enrico Spada
When Suzanne Ankrum dons the mantle of Gabrielle, Emilie's daughter about to be married into a royal house, a dynamo is created in this actress's demeanor. Her flare-up is not bridal jitters gone wrong, it is a moment when every mother's worst nightmare becomes real and vibrant and threatening. In addition to everything else this actress brings to the stage, her bridal scene is a memorable moment in a play that builds such moments into walls of stone and steel. She is brilliant here and her work is as magical as anything else in this play.
Playing everything from Mama to the maid, Joan Coombs combines her excellent mime skills and her classic tones to create a panoply of characters and bring them back perfectly whenever necessary. She has a remarkable facility for this multi-tasking and by the end of the up-tempo play it is as though an entire world has inhabited the stage. She is abetted in this effort by the talented Brendan Cataldo who does for the men in the story what Coombs does for the women. From an opera box attendant to Emilie's final lover, from her military husband to courtiers and Newton himself, his every appearance takes us to new places and high-pitched emotions. If you've ever wondered what France in the early mid-1700s was like, these two make you instantly familiar with that world.
The run of this revival, this antic reconstruction, is far too short. It should play for months, not days, but that's all there is. If you missed it four years ago you have a brief window of time in which to occupy this space (space and time are paramount for this play). If you saw it and liked it, or were intrigued by it, now is the time to resolve any issues you may have had as the company has come back together and, under the specific insights of director Van Ginhoven, have rendered the messages in this play with swift justice meted out for the participants. You may see this show somewhere else at some time, but you will never see it performed like this - and you should.
Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight plays on the Tina Packer Stage at Shakespeare and Company, Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through April 9. For tickets or information call the box office 413-637-3353 or go on line to www.WAMTheatre.com.