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Review: 'Emilie' at South Coast Repertory

April 27, 2009 |  3:30 pm


At first blush, Emilie du Châtelet, an 18th century noblewoman who’s whip-smart with numbers and natural laws, might seem to have been born too soon for her society to appreciate her brilliance. But why let our own society off the hook?

Lauren Gunderson’s “Emilie -- La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life at the Petit Théâtre at Cirey Tonight,” which is receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, may not rise to the level of stirring drama, but it speaks as much to our time as to any preceding era. A work of historical fiction, the play has much in it that is current and true, particularly the difficulty that brainy women have in gaining acceptance from their male peers and balancing intellectual ambition with emotional hunger.

Gunderson, an emerging playwright finishing her MFA in dramatic writing at NYU, possesses an antic imagination that seeks to invent its own rules. She gambols around her tale, lighting on scenes that open up the conflicts and themes she’s most interested in exploring. Her storytelling style, which can admittedly get precious, doesn’t pander to narrative interest. As soon as we’re drawn in, she shakes us and whisks us 10 or 15 paces ahead.

It's refreshing the way Gunderson takes command of her material, but the framing device she employs is feeble. Emilie (Natacha Roi) finds herself back in the world of the living, patting her body in surprise and wondering the reason for her return. She addresses us directly, setting up her own theatrical journey, but the execution is like rudimentary Pirandello tinged with something suspiciously resembling a self-help sensibility.

Emilie2Emilie is wary of revisiting certain painful chapters in her history, but she’s desperate to find out whether her challenge to one of Isaac Newton’s equations was correct. “I died thinking: Was I right?” she tells us in her characteristically clipped cadences. “Shortly followed by: Was I loved? Shortly followed by: Does either one really matter in the end?”

Yes, there’s a banal streak running through the play, but attempts are made to cover it up with high-minded talk once we travel back in time.  Voltaire (Don Reilly) — or V as he is affectionately called — is on hand, engaging Emilie in a badminton of wit. (Their prattle is indeed affected, but let’s chalk that up to the age.)

These two brilliant thinkers are in love, and even though Emilie is married and “a lady of stature,” she winds up harboring him in her chateau. Complication arise when they collaborate on an essay about “the nature and propagation of fire.” V won’t brook any second-guessing of his idol, Newton, and Emilie can’t allow her heart to censor her mind.

This private tussle becomes public, and Emilie, already a rebel against domestic convention, emerges as a renegade in the male-dominated upper-echelons of Enlightenment thought. To set the record straight, she translates Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” and adds a corrective commentary.

One of the problems of “Emilie” is that more energy is spent on animating the not-terribly-complex ideas than on fleshing out the characters. Instead of adding texture to the relationships, Gunderson offers quirky distractions, such as the way Emilie must call in Soubrette (Rebecca Mozo) to stand in as a younger version of herself when she wants to experience touch. Apparently, this furlough from the dead doesn’t permit sensuality.

Matthew Humphreys plays several male gentlemen, including Emilie’s devoted-from-afar husband and the Soldier-Poet, who later become her lover. If the individuality of these men is an afterthought, it’s probably because Gunderson is so intently focused on Emilie’s needs and desires. Everything is seen through the prism of her mental life, which may be a useful corrective but doesn’t make for riveting drama.

Directed by SCR Producing Artistic Director David Emmes, the production indulges the fey academic whimsy of the writing. The staging is scenically attractive (Cameron Anderson designed the sprightly neoclassical sets), but the stylized presentation, underscored with period music, doesn’t deepen a work that ultimately seems more like a fanciful proof than a play.    

--Charles McNulty   

"Emilie -- La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life at the Petit Théâtre at Cirey Tonight,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends May 10. $28 to $64. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Top photo: Natacha Roi as Emilie and Don Reilly as Voltaire. Bottom: Rebecca Mozo as Soubrette, with Roi and Reilly. Credits: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times