Emilie is like a perfectly icy glass of champagne laced with bitters.
Avant Bard’s scintillating production of Lauren Gunderson’s play about Enlightenment-era scientific genius and mistress of Voltaire (usually, the order is reversed so her affiliation with a famous man comes first) La Marquise du Chatelet—the Emilie of the title—sparkles with wit, intelligence and passion both carnal and creative.
Director Rick Hammerly keeps the staging quite like the universe—constantly in motion—giving liveliness and court dance-like elegance in this story of Emilie’s examination of her life and her constant struggle between love and pursuing advanced scientific theories. The play is even staged like a match between the head and the heart—two movable full-length mirrors etched with “Love” and “Philosophy” twirl around as Emilie keeps score on each surface as her life events unfold.
In an interesting twist, the peculiar laws of the afterlife dictate that Emilie can examine and revisit her memories, but she can’t touch them. So in the love scenes, she has a doppelganger (an exquisitely spirited and vital Billie Krishawn), who steps in to do what Emilie remembers but cannot re-experience.
Of course, the first trace of bitters comes from the knowledge that the men in the play don’t have to choose—they can have it all. Certainly, Voltaire (Brit Herring, portraying the rebel poet and playwright with charming braggadocio and apparently limitless ego and appetites) didn’t waste a thought on whether he could pursue a robust love life and still write poems, plays and philosophical treatises. Even Emilie’s duty-bound husband (Steve Lebens, solid and distinct in this and other roles) doesn’t have to think about such matters.
Which brings us to the next taste of bittersweet—where the hell has Emilie been all of our lives? Most of us know her as a footnote to history, the great Voltaire’s lover, her scientific and mathematical acumen de-emphasized in favor of romanticism and le grande amour.
Emilie—La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight
closes November 19, 2017
Details and tickets
And then you go out into the lobby and see the display of other woman scientists, from ancient Greece through and beyond Ada Lovelace, a “human computer” whose first mention is always as Lord Byron’s daughter. Speaking of human computers, the experience of Emilie is akin to reading the book or watching the movie Hidden Figures—on one hand you are inspired by these women, their extraordinary minds that are not an imitation of the male brain but a construction wholly, magnificently female. And on the other hand, you get so mad about these women and their stories largely buried or lost to history you could just spit.
Shout outs to playwright Gunderson and all the others who bring these women’s stories to light.
And that’s what Emilie is—pure light and energy, just like the elements she seeks to explain and understand. As portrayed with radiant poise by Sara Barker, Emilie is on fire—whether she is canoodling with Voltaire—whom she calls “V,” clever since in physics “v” stands for volume and Voltaire’s ego and passions certainly take up a lot of space—or pursuing a line of thinking that actually improves on Newtonian theory.
Barker so incandescently plays Emilie’s pursuit of science and big love that you imagine her brain and heart cells are millions of baby birds—tiny mouths wide open and begging for more.
“Time and space” is a refrain in Emilie’s conversation with herself and it’s a theme that runs through the play. Time and space is something Emilie wants to explain, understand and embrace in its infinity. But she also knows that as a human—and a woman—her time and space is limited.
So it is ironic and galling to find out that Emilie dies at 42 in childbirth, an all-too-common and tragic end for women throughout history. What gives life, takes life. Time and space are woefully finite for most women.
But the comfort and inspiration of Emilie is in that small space and time we can be brilliant—our minds as limitless as the stars, our hearts filled to the brim.
Emilie—La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson . Director: Rick Hammerly. Featuring: Sara Barker, Brit Herring, Lisa Hodsoll, Billie Krishawn, Steve Lebens . Set and Properties Designer: Greg Stevens. Lighting Designer: Joseph R. Walls. Costume Designer: Danielle Preston. Sound Designer: Frank DiSalvo Jr. Movement Coach: Elena Day. Scenic Artist: Greg Stevens. Technical Director: Christopher Sullivan. Dramaturg: Joan Cummins. Production Stage Manager: Richard Lore. Produced by WSC Avant Bard . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.