Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight a Power Play of Passion (3.5 stars)

‘Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight’ – Written by Lauren Gunderson.  Directed by Judy Braha. Presented by Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. Through Saturday, September 20th.

Emilie du Chatelet was a woman ahead of her time – mathematician, author and foremost translator of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica – in 18th century France.  Her father encouraged her brilliant mind with tutors, her mother threatened to send her to a convent. Neither could squelch her unconventional nature and her passion for stimulation. Married to a much older man who sired three of her children, the Marquise had many lovers. The longest of these affairs was with Voltaire, a relationship that her husband indulged. Their fifteen year relationship, with its jealousies, passion, and intellectual collaboration, is at the heart of the play.

The conceit is that for one night, Time and Space collide to allow the deceased Marquise to ruminate on the unanswered question of her life – what was it all about?  Love?  Philosophy?  In a series of flashbacks, she shows us her trajectory, and the various victories she attributes to head or heart. A loud buzzing jolts through her whenever she tries to get physical with the characters from her drama, which serves as a reminder that she is indeed dead.  

The problem is, despite a very winning performance from the charming Lee Mikeska Gardner, Emilie is not all that likeable a protagonist. She is very sure of her intellectual superiority, and seems to have an answer for everything. When her daughter, on her wedding day, shouts “You’ve always cared for books more than me”, her response is to write a book! Ostensibly for her daughter! Uh, okay.  She comes across as a self-absorbed narcissist whose entire life revolves around her research and career advancement. Her sexual freedom is ahead of its time, but this is no Lady Chatterley – all of her lovers are men of accomplishment. Perhaps this is what it takes to be a heavy hitter in the 18th century masculine world of science, but by the time she decides that love is definitely the point of life, I had already stopped caring.   

Steven Barkhimer is utterly convincing as the childish and clever Voltaire. The chemistry between him and Gardner is a joy to watch. Lewis D. Wheeler plays many parts well, including Emilie’s father, husband, and poet/soldier suitor. The beautiful Sophorl Ngin is terrific as the young Emilie, as well as Emilie’s daughter, and the capable Michelle Dowd performs a series of thankless walk-on roles, from Emilie’s conventional mother to a needy household guest.  

Steven Royal’s set design is a marvel, with mathematical equations lining the floors and walls – audience members were scrutinizing it during intermission – with a moveable desk and chair flanking the long middle playing area. Judy Braha’s direction is fast and fluid; the actors move purposefully and use all of the space well. Chelsea Kerl’s costumes are true to the time period, despite the modern day vernacular that the characters sprinkle throughout their speech. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/