Coincidentally or not, while the French Revolution is raging on Aurora Theatre’s main stage, with the epic musical “Les Miserables,” the company’s smaller studio space is housing an intimate independent production about the 18th-century French scientist (and pre-feminist) Emilie du Chatelet. Vive la difference!
Despite living in a so-called Age of Enlightenment, du Chatelet (1706-1749) was years ahead of her time, both as a sexually liberated woman and as an influential but underappreciated mathematician and philosopher. Less renowned in her own day as a colleague of the famous Voltaire than as his paramour, her brilliant career was essentially reduced to a footnote by the patriarchal prejudices of the ensuing eras.
“Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight,” written by Lauren Gunderson (an Atlanta native now based in San Francisco), opens with a haunting flourish, with the heroine’s dying breaths, before transporting her into a fancifully stylized afterlife to review her situation.
Crucial moments from Emilie’s life flash before our eyes, as Gunderson plays with time and space and other such “celestial mechanics” to fashion a charming and cunning character who’s questioning the whys and why nots of existence, torn between the principles of science and the vagaries of love.
In director Shannon Eubanks’ elegantly rendered staging for the fledgling Weird Sisters Theatre Project, a lot of the headier academic debates may escape those of us who aren’t trained physicists. But in the spirited and emotional performance of actress Veronika Duerr, Emilie’s affairs of the heart are beautifully reasoned and strike a perfect note. (If her story sounds vaguely familiar, you might have previously seen it in Horizon’s 2011 “Legacy of Light.”)
Portraying a variety of supporting characters is a masked Greek chorus of sorts (Erin Considine, Tony Larkin, Holly Stevenson). In some flashbacks, Emilie interacts with them directly; in others, she stands apart, observing events from a distance. Actual physical contact with them isn’t allowed, but in one of the show’s funniest bits, she can snap her fingers and somebody else will step forward to give the preening Voltaire the swift slap in the face he so richly deserves.
Joe Sykes co-stars as Emilie’s beloved “V.” Although he’s a fine actor in general, he seems miscast here. Whether as conceived by Gunderson, guided by Eubanks or interpreted by Sykes, his boyish, foppish Voltaire is much too shallow to be taken seriously as a legitimate counterpart or sparring partner for Duerr’s smart and sophisticated Emilie.
As broadly as the role is drawn, he might as well be wearing an ornate mask and a simulated powdered wig like any other member of that surrealistic chorus (he isn’t). Call it a case of reverse gender objectification, but it upsets the deliberate, otherwise delicate balance of Gunderson’s play. It doesn’t necessarily strengthen Emilie’s argument for equal rights when her supposedly worthy opponent is effectively deprived of his own.
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