Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Follow the rules. . .easy makes us happy."
Kim Stauffer who plays Emilie
In a few hours of afterlife, a veiled place where people dance and sway and make the breezes their passage back to reality, the Marquise Du Châtelet makes her case for her earned immortality to a random audience of spectators, many of whom have never heard of her. It is her hope to make us care enough to take up the cudgel and defend her memory. It is a case she makes well in Lauren Gunderson whimsical play directed with a definite sense of that whimsy by WAM Theatre’s founder Kristen Van Ginhoven.
Born in 1706, this tall woman whose arranged marriage to the Marquis du Châtelet-Lomont allows her privileges beyond her original status in the upper crust of France, Gabrielle Emilie was a bright, inquisitive and well-educated woman whose curiosity knew no bounds. The mother of three children, she tutored her sons and oddly ignored her own daughter’s education. At the court of Louis XIV, the Duc du Richelieu encouraged her to study math and physics and her teacher, de Maupertius was one of the finest mathematicians of his day. It was the meeting, in 1733, with Voltaire that changed her life forever as she fell under his spell romantically, intellectually and professionally. They joined forces in the book "The Elements of the Philosophy of Newton," and she later published her own work, "The Foundation of Physics" and her translation of a scandalous book, "The Fable of Bees." She was a woman ahead of her time. The Age of Enlightenment was not enlightened enough, it seems, to tolerate brilliant women and in this play Emilie has come to ask us to step in and understand her, appreciate her and, if needed, forgive her.
The play is quirky and charming and disarming and alarming in a rotation of effects and sequences that heighten the unreality of the Marquise’s own existence. As she moves through marriage and love affair and lack of affection and finally an affair that provides her with a love-child at age 43 she remains the same smart if ingenuous flirt that she is in the opening moments of the play. Where the play fails to move us is the depth of lack of growth in Emilie herself. We can see her play with numbers and statistics as she wracks up the score in her life, playing love against philosophy. We can see her anger and her humility in equal proportion. We can witness her loving and her despising. However, from 18 to 43 she remains the same woman, science and math replacing development in her own maturity. By the end of the play we can find that there is little to forgive as she has committed no crime, normal behavior to her being the concept of living an honest and truthful life. We can admire her for everything she does and everything she is, but we cannot give her the rest she seems to need.
Kim Sauffer plays Emilie with a diamond-hard brilliance. It is her rock-steady interpretation that holds the evening together. Whether caught in the maelstrom of her reach across time to connect or in touch with her doubling as her previous image makes those connections, Stauffer never for an instance loses touch with the image she must convey to her audience. Her physical beauty is secondary here to her physical intensity which is sometimes overwhelming. This is a performance to immerse yourself in as you watch her struggle to remain who Emilie always is, the aspect of intellectual perfection.
As Voltaire Oliver Wadsworth has the exact opposite interpretation to deal with. He matures and alters and changes emotionally and physically in the course of this play. He manages it with subtle changes at first, then drastic ones as age pursues the philosopher/poet/novelist/playwright. Bewigged or not Wadsworth creates a character who is not the hero of the story, in spite of his larger-than-life personality. His love scenes are both touching and humorous and his philosophical posturing is both annoying and endearing. What he brings to the proceedings is that highly necessary understanding of the man’s point of view in light of academic success and superiority in the case of Emilie.
Susanne Ankrum as "Soubrette" takes on many roles including the physical Emilie and her own, intellectually ignored, daughter. She makes fluid changes in personality as her role takes her through so many variations.
Brendan Cataldo plays "Gentleman", a character who like Soubrette adapts to the roles of father, husband and lover while also taking on many more characterizations as needed including servants, noblemen and others. He does this with the same aplomb as Ankrum.
The role of "Madam" is undertaken by Joan Coombs, a favorite of this reviewer. Her maids and mother and noblewoman are equally entrancing as this local actress who has graced many of our major and minor stages brings her beautiful talents to the fore. Her verbal engagements with Emilie are remarkable and she makes points better than many other actresses could do, her voice and her posture indicating as much as subtle costume changes could her place in the tapestry of early eighteenth century life in France.
A clever and fluid production with scenic design by Juliana Von Haubrich, costume design by the always clever Govane Lohbauer, and subtle lighting design by Andi Lyons is aided immensely by the music composed by Vincent Olivieri and projections, sound design and musical arrangements by Brad Berridge. Magical Realism seems to have been the universal goal set by the director Van Ginhoven and her team of designers has given her just what the play demands. Bravo, also, to Emily Lutin, whose work as movement director, is finely borne out by the cast and designers in combination.
The style of the performance as directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven may not grab you at first glance, but it will get to you and it will hold fast. Like the mind of her heroine there is a touch of innocent madness kept under control and used as a lure in this show. Not a musical, you come away from it what that same definite involvement that a good musical always provides in its songs and dances. Here it is an intellectual premise that provides the hook. Don’t be put off by its title, or the fancy costume and hard structure that you see in the promos. Just bring an open mind and be prepared to be stimulated. That’s what "Emilie, etc." is all about.
Oliver Wadsworth who plays Voltaire
Joan Coombs who plays Madam
Emilie runs through November 24 at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center located at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets call 800-838-3006 or go on line to www.WAMTheatre.com.