Review: ‘Émilie, La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight’ by Vienna Theatre Company

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Editing from the playwright’s own words, “Émilie is a play about legacy,” and “is a dilated moment in time just before Emilie’s death. It is a game of wit, a defiance of mortality, a beautiful battle of brains. Funny, sexy, fiery. Émilie is a real woman, a true story, a myth, and a mystery. This play is hers.”

Heather Plank as Emilie in Vienna Theatre Company's production of Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight. Photo by John Sharrard.
Heather Plank as Émilie in Vienna Theatre Company’s production of Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight. Photo by John Sharrard.

Lauren Gunderson, who was recognized by American Theatre magazine as the most-produced playwright of the season last year, has reawakened recognition for the title character in the play, Émilie, La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight. Big questions lie at the heart of great plays and this play starts with questions Émilie asks of herself on her deathbed. It goes on to tackle explorations about love, genius, gender, and what she is leaving behind.

The current production at the Vienna Theatre Company, thoughtfully directed by Kathleen Barth, boasts Heather Plank in the title role of Émilie, offering a brave portrait of a scientific genius far ahead of her time. From the top, it is her play. Plank’s portrayal emphasizes the inquisitive mind over the character’s love life despite history often relegating focus onto Émilie’s 10-year love affair with Voltaire.

As played by Bruce Alan Rauscher, Voltaire is ego-driven, somewhat childish, and delightful to watch. Like the other male characters of the play, Voltaire is entranced by Émilie’s spirit and intellect. His character and that of the Soubrette, acted solidly by Abbie Desrosiers, provide terrific moments of comic relief. Mulberg plays a younger version of Émilie, as well as other more frivolous girls. The two other actors admirably playing multiple parts, are Kevin Walker, as all the other gentlemen, and Jessie Roberts as Madam. What an excellent ensemble!

Period music and interesting sound choices by designer Scott Duvall, provide appropriate moods and setting, though playback volume could stand some adjustment when actors were speaking from upstage.

The lighting design by Heather Rody supported the fast pace of scene changes onstage. Houselights seemed to be adjustable only as on or off, so when used, those transitions were a bit abrupt. Along with Annie Vroom, Desrosiers provides the beautiful period costumes.

Heather Plank as Emilie and Bruce Alan Rauscher as Voltaire in Vienna Theatre Company's production of Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight. Photo by John Sharrard.
Heather Plank as Émilie and Bruce Alan Rauscher as Voltaire in Vienna Theatre Company’s production of Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight. Photo by John Sharrard.

The play shines a joyful, if belated, beacon on an astonishing woman. Émilie broke barriers in women’s education, in math, physics, and philosophy. She wrote seminal works about Newton’s Laws, updating them with her own discoveries. In her personal life, she also followed her own compass, loving deeply and often. We seldom see plays that treat historic characters with such skill, and this production takes on the questions Émilie could not answer in life, and describes, as the playwright says, “the struggles and triumphs of a badass woman.”

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Émilie, La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight runs through November 4, 2018, at the Vienna Community Center –  120 Cherry Street SE, in Vienna, VA. Tickets are available in advance during community center hours or at the door by cash or credit card or online. For more information please visit http://www.viennatheatrecompany.org.

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