Review: Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Susanna Wilson. With Kate Witt, Nick De Santis, Jason Marr, Sara Coates and Jodie McCoy. Now through February 20 at ArtsWest.
Frankly, I was surprised ArtsWest invited me back to see their latest production, Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson, (yes, that’s the last time I’ll refer to this play by its full name…) I gave an honest, but rather scathing critique of their previous production, A Tuna Christmas, and suggested that it wasn’t even up to community theater standards. But, seeing their new production, Emilie, is proof that comebacks are possible. Emilie is probably the best play I’ve seen so far this year (2011) and ArtsWest’s production is brilliantly and professionally directed, acted and designed by a very talented crew of artists and technicians. And, playwright Lauren Gunderson has crafted a charming, witty and intelligent piece of drama; she is a writer to watch and Emilie is the ticket to book right now on Seattle stages.
I’m not a fan of the long, drawn out synopsis but you do need to know a bit what to expect; it is a new play after all...Emilie is the true story, (though greatly abridged) of the 18th century (we’re in Dangerous Liaison territory, folks, circa 1740) French noblewoman, the Marquise du Châtelet who wasn’t content with a life powdering her wig and gossiping with the aristocracy about who was boffing whom in a linen closet at Versailles. Emilie’s father, recognizing that his daughter had a sharp and keen intellect, provided her with the best education available to a woman. Married to the kind and understanding Marquis du Châtelet who was a professional soldier and frequently gone from home, Emilie pursued her studies in science and math as she bore three children but was frustrated at the lack of opportunity for female academics. She met her salvation in the form of celebrated French writer, philosopher and playwright Voltaire and the two began a passionate relationship, (with the tacit approval of her husband who had his own mistress) and the two retreated to the Châtelet estate in the country to work on scientific experiments, many based on the work of Newton. Her work in physics and math was recognized across Europe and she developed many ideas that were later used by other physicists, including Einstein that may have helped him lead to his Theory of Relativity. Emilie’s life was cut short at age 42 but her work lived on after her.
Emilie, the play, examines her work as a mathematician and scientist but it is primarily a romance that centers on her tumultuous relationship with Voltaire. Their love was passionate, but volatile and the two separated and reunited on more than one occasion. This relationship take center stage in Emilie while a trio of actors play all the other characters in the lives of the couple, as the character of Emilie defends her actions on how she lived her life before an audience of her peers.
Lauren Gunderson’s skills as a writer are the chief selling point of this play. She ably weaves complex math equations, and elements of physics into a tale of romance, passion and betrayal without confusing or alienating her audience. You don’t need a PhD in Calculus or Physics to enjoy this play; the language is relatable to everyone, but the tone and scope of this play remains far reaching and intellectual. Ms Gunderson balances the brainier aspects of the drama with the passion of the romance between Voltaire and Emilie but also unafraid to explore the humor and charm of the characters and their situations. It’s an exciting new work of art from an emerging young playwright. I look forward to future plays from Ms Gunderson.
Actor turned director Susanna Wilson has done an outstanding job with the direction of the play, with immaculately staged movement and an ear for the language and meaning of the text. The pace never lags and Ms Wilson has a sure hand with both the moments of drama, as well as the lighter, more comedic scenes played between the two lovers. It’s an assured piece of stage direction.
But, some of Ms Wilson’s job was made easier with the casting of the actors in Emilie. There are five actors in the cast, and the ensemble work of Sara Coates, (primarily used as a representation of a younger Emilie), Jody McCoy, (playing all the older women roles) and Jason Marr, (all the other men in Emilie’s life, apart from Voltaire) is exemplary and an asset to the production. But, Emilie is really a duet between the Marquise du Châtelet and Voltaire and both Kate Witt and Nick DeSantis give bold, exciting performances as the couple. Ms Witt radiates intelligence, strength and charm as Emilie, not afraid to be tough and tactless if need be, but also not afraid to show the vulnerability and pain of the character. It’s a smart, gutsy performance by a gifted actress.
She is well matched with Nick DeSantis as the vain-glorious Voltaire, a notorious scallywag and adventurer. Mr DeSantis is a seasoned Seattle actor beloved for his comedic skills, and those skills are well utilized in Emilie, but he also excels with the dramatic aspects of this role and exquisitely plays the pain of the man who loves a woman he knows to be his intellectual superior. Not only is Mr DeSantis’ comedy timing impeccable, he is also masterful at playing both the great lover, as well as the tragic artist. It’s a case of a great actor playing a great part.
Voltaire was Emilie’s senior by 12 years but he outlived her for nearly thirty more years. This play, naturally ends with Emilie’s death and prior to Voltaire’s greater fame as the author of Candide. It almost behooves Lauren Gunderson to write a follow up play examining the rest of Voltaire’s life. If so, I demand Mr DeSantis continue to play this role. I crave to see more of this life, enacted by this actor, with words from this playwright. But, for now, we’ll have to be content with this excellent production of Emilie from ArtsWest. It’s a must see theatrical event for serious theater lovers.