The Combustible Element in Emilie

Lauren Gunderson's new play is more compelling in theory than in execution.

Dael Orlandersmith may have chosen male pathos as a muse, but the next spate of plays in Berkeley is mostly about women (Mark Jackson’s Salomania being the notable exception). Eve Ensler will wax poetic about teenage girls at Berkeley Rep; Marga Gomez continues her exploration of femininity and age at The Marsh; and, at Berkeley City Club, newbie playwright Lauren Gunderson unveils her reimagining of Emilie, La Marquise du Châtelet. Gunderson’s play is in a sense more challenging, since it takes place in an epoch that contemporary audiences may have a hard time relating to. It’s dicey material, and that shows in the execution.

Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, produced under the auspice of small local company Symmetry Theatre and directed by Chloe Bronzan, is about as unwieldy as the title suggests, though the story behind it is quite interesting. The real marquise was an 18th-century French mathematician and physicist who produced a robust body of work during her brief lifetime, including an exacting translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. She also had a long and tempestuous affair with the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, who famously described her as a man trapped in a woman’s body (or in his words, “a great man whose only fault was being a woman”). She spends the bulk of Gunderson’s play arguing with him about the principles of kinetic energy, writing mathematical formulas on chalkboards (with a quill pen, of course), and, occasionally, slutting it up. Even by today’s standards, she was a true bon vivant. The fact that she did it in 18th-century France was nothing short of remarkable.

Emilie’s biography offers a promising setup, even though it doesn’t carry much in the way of plot — admittedly, it’s hard to depict a long courtship, and even harder to dramatize the writing of a book. Gunderson invented the dialogue from scratch, but took few liberties with the actual chronology of events. So the onus is on her six characters to create the action and propel it forward.

Luckily, Bronzan cast a strong female lead to do that. Emilie is played by the ebullient Danielle Levin, who has, among other qualities, that thing that the French call joie de vivre. She also has the carriage of a woman who philanders without reproach. The play jogs through most of Emilie’s childhood, including her marriage to the marquis (Colin Thomson, looking every bit the cuckold), who was evidently a marginal figure in her life anyway. We get bits and pieces about Emilie’s strained relationship with both her mother (the fabulously officious Marie Shell), and her daughter (the painfully jilted Blythe Foster), but for the most part, those stories are tangential. Emilie is more of a long monologue than an ensemble piece, and Levin is burdened with holding it together. She makes Emilie a study in self-possession. If the protagonist suffered from some past wound, Levin certainly doesn’t show it.

Seeing that kind of female charisma is refreshing, and it’s probably a historically accurate depiction of the real Emilie. All the same, it might have been a mistake to focus so intently on one protracted love affair, especially with two actors who so obviously aren’t in love. Robert Parsons plays Voltaire in this rendition, and he looks age-appropriate — in reality he was about twelve years Emilie’s senior — but their chemistry is never quite convincing. Part of that has to do with Parsons’ costume, which consists of a brown wig, teal hair ribbon, and a ruffly old-lady blouse. Bronzan handled the costume design as well as the staging, and evidently she was operating on a shoestring budget — period costumes are the easiest way to run up a show’s production costs, after all. But in this case, she might have been better off having the actors wear simple street clothes. Parsons looks too foppish to be Emilie’s suitor, and he seems visibly uncomfortable in all the ruffles and frills. Their love affair creaks along with all the wattage of a flickering candle.

Gunderson’s conceit that the marquise’s life could be defined as a tug-of-war between love and philosophy is a suitable frame for the show, although it would work better if the love were as potent as the philosophy. Voltaire and Emilie throw a lot more passion into their debates over the science of fire than into their actual courtship, and it isn’t until Emilie shacks up with the younger, vacuous poet Jean Francois (Tyler McKenna) that the play’s first real love scenes take place.

In principle, Emilie is a fascinating idea for a play, but it proved difficult to animate. It’s clear that a lot of Gunderson’s ideas fell short in Bronzan’s attempt to stage them. That’s probably the nature of the material. Philosophy, not love, is the combustible element in Emilie. No surprise that it’s more compelling on paper.


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