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Review: ‘Emilie’ at Avant Bard

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Life is full of unanswered questions. But in Lauren Gunderson’s play, Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, the title character is given a second chance. Avant Bard is currently showing this fascinating story about the 18th-century French female philosopher, mathematician, physicist, and author, Emilie Du Châtelet, who, through a rare gift of space and time, is allowed to revisit her life to try and find the answers she died not knowing.

read Sophia Howes’ insightful column, Dangereuse, about this production

Emilie Du Châtelet is one of the great female scientific minds that many have never heard of because of her sex. The work she is best known for is her French translation, with commentary, of Isaac Newton’s famous writings on the basic laws of physics, Principia. The book was published posthumously, and initially Emilie was seen as more of a muse and contributor of her own work, than the author of the translation. Gunderson’s play gives Emilie the platform she was never allowed in life and shines a light on this remarkable woman and the contributions she made to science and the way in which we understand physics today.

Billie Krishawn (Soubrette), Steve Lebens (Gentleman), Lisa Hodsoll
(Madam), Brit Herring (Voltaire). Photograph by DJ Corey Photography.

Director Rick Hammerly makes great use of the black box theater with in-the-round staging. The set, designed by Greg Stevens, is entirely mobile and the actors move the various chairs, desk, and chaise, constantly circling as the play progresses. There is a restlessness in the movement, reflecting the endless workings of Emilie’s mind and heart, while also mimicking the ceaseless flux of the cosmos and the very ideas surrounding motion and mass that Emilie is contemplating.

Emilie, played by Sara Barker, was not just a thinker, though. She loved as passionately as she learned, and Gunderson presents these two sides of Emilie, her love and her philosophy, as competing. As she walks through the different scenes in her life, Emilie draws tally marks for every moment of success in either category. She meets Voltaire — a mark for “love.” She contemplates a different way of thinking and interpreting energy — a mark for philosophy. And so on. The scorekeeping doesn’t appear to serve any purpose outside of her own desire to understand her life and find the solutions she’s been searching for.

Brit Herring is Voltaire, the French writer and historian known for his sharp wit and attacks on the Catholic Church. He is brazen and bold, and can go pound for pound against Emilie, in the realm of passion. Voltaire and Emilie’s relationship was as much intellectual as it was physical and the two worked closely for many years.

Sara Barker (Emilie) surrounded by (from left:) Steve Lebens (Gentleman), Billie Krishawn (Soubrette), Lisa Hodsoll (Madam). Photograph by DJ Corey Photography.

Barker and Herring work well off of one another. Their conversations flit from a battle of wits, to bouncing ideas, and then back again, their energy feeding and building off one another.

The entire production is actually buzzing with energy. Emilie discovers early in the show that, while she is able to relive different moments of her life, it is only an illusion. She is not able to touch any of the other characters. The first time this is discovered, she is having an intimate moment with Voltaire. The moment they touch everything comes to a grinding halt. Light Design by Joseph Walls and Sound Design by Frank DiSalvo Jr create the illusion of an immense power outage. Lights flash and it sounds as if a great machine is shutting down. Emilie is left in the dark and the other characters are slumped and twitching like robots that have short-circuited.

There are three other cast members, besides Barker and Herring, playing the remaining parts in the reenactment of the Marquise’ life: Lisa Hodsoll (Madame), Billie Krishawn (Soubrette), and Steve Lebens (Gentleman). They are at times non-sentient beings, waiting in the wings or moving a set piece. And then stepping into the scene as Emilie’s mother, daughter, or husband (yes, Emilie was married to a very tolerant man who loved her in his own way, as she did him).

Costume design by Danielle Preston creatively allows for the flexibility necessary for the staging. The women wore corsets and bustles, as would be expected for 18th-century clothing, but wore long neutral colored pants. This effectively added to the idea that the scenes playing out were simply illusions as in a dream.

Emilie is an intellectual treat that examines the life of a brilliant woman, who loved, lived, and discovered with a passionate thirst for more. Avant Bard’s production of Gunderson’s play is a journey of the mind and heart. Through recounting Emilie’s life and experiences, the play examines the value of love versus philosophy and reveals the simple truth that one cannot exist without the other.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 10-minute intermission.

Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight plays through November 12, 2017, at Avant Bard performing at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online.

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