A recent transplant to San Francisco from Georgia by way of New York, playwright Lauren Gunderson has taken the Bay Area by storm. Her full-length local debut was last year’s rolling world premiere of her revenge comedy Exit, Pursued by a Bear, and she has shows in the works with seemingly half the theatre companies in town, including Crowded Fire, SF Playhouse, Shotgun Players and Impact Theatre. Now Symmetry Theatre Company, a local outfit devoted to creating more stage opportunities for female Equity actors, gives us the Bay Area premiere of Gunderson’s play Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight.
Émilie du Châtelet was an 18th-century French scientist known, among other things, for crafting the still-standard French translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. She also notably corrected Newton’s assertion that the force of a moving object is proportional to its velocity; she said rather that it’s proportional to its velocity squared, paving the way for Einstein’s more famous equation centuries later. She was also a longtime lover of Voltaire, a biographical fact that proves irresistible to anyone fictionalizing her life.
Oddly enough, du Châtelet is the same scientist that was the subject of Legacy of Light, Karan Zacarias’s play that San Jose Rep produced last year. Odder still, the two plays originally premiered just three weeks apart in 2009, on different sides of the country—and both feature du Châtelet addressing the audience, fully aware that she’s dead. That said, Gunderson’s play was first.
In Gunderson’s Emilie, du Châtelet awakes to find herself dead. That is, she already knows she’s dead, but she’s surprised to find herself jolted into consciousness and watching her life played out before her like, well, a play. It’s the sort of setup that could easily just be a thin framing device for a biographical play—and has been used as such for simpler offerings such as the Tammy Wynette popsical Stand by Your Man—but here it informs all the action. Trying to make sense of all the questions left unanswered at her death, she keeps a running tally (projected onto a wall) of points scored by “love” or by “philosophy” in her life as she reenacts it. For the most part she plays herself in the scenes from her life, but she discovers early on that she can’t actually touch anyone. Whenever she does actually make physical contact, there’s a crackling electrical sound and the lights go out. Fortunately she has a stand-in, Soubrette, who steps in whenever canoodling is called for. How this situation came to be or why these rules work the way they do is never explained or even really addressed, but it provides a stylized theatrical framework to explore the fascinating life of a fascinating woman.
Directed by company cofounder and artistic director Chloe Bronzan, Symmetry’s production is clearly staged on the cheap. Bronzan’s set is minimal—some books and clocks on the mantel of the Berkeley City Club’s fireplace and a few gilded chairs—and her costumes are super-simple approximations of period garb, with amusingly ill-fitting wigs.
But more to the point is the action of the play—insofar as the life of the mind is characterized by action at all—and that comes to life remarkably well in Bronzan’s staging. Danielle Levin is a powerhouse as Emilie, bursting with a voracious thirst for knowledge and passion for the pursuit of truth. That’s particularly helpful in parts that would otherwise come off as arrogant; Emilie takes great satisfaction in being right, but Levin exudes such joy in grappling with concepts that her one-upsmanship seems to be a simple extension of that, and her frustration at not being taken seriously because she’s a woman is more than understandable. She also heroically spends the entire intermission onstage, furiously writing and researching a book.
Robert Parsons makes a delightful foil for her of Voltaire, who’s depicted as terribly self-centered and high-maintenance, always fussing about health problems real or imagined, jealous of Emilie’s intellectual successes and especially of anything that diverts her attention away from him. (She’s married, but no matter; her husband is always away and doesn’t seem to mind her amorous exploits in the slightest. They are French, after all.) The physical imbalance between the older and much, much taller Parsons and the petite Levin makes the tense and passionate alliance between the two all the more amusing.
In the play as published, two women and one man play all the other roles, but Symmetry’s production splits the male part in two, turning a majority-female play into a 50/50 gender split. (Either scenario works fine for the company’s mission; it’s just that it won’t do majority-male plays.) Colin Thomson is gentle and tender-hearted as Emilie’s husband, the Marquis, who misses her but can’t quite connect to her (“And this is where it gets confusing,” she tells us, “because that’s love too”) and particularly amusing in the non-speaking role of Isaac Newton. Marie Shell plays a variety of huffy aristocrats and grumpy housemaids, and most memorably Emilie’s mother, trying futilely in flashback to turn the budding genius into a demure and unquestioning woman who lives only for domestic life. Tyler McKenna is winningly earnest as Emilie’s otherwise forgettable new lover when things with Voltaire turn sour.
Blythe Foster exudes flirtatious sexuality as Soubrette, Emilie’s stand-in, as well as various society ladies and a giggly young lover of Voltaire’s. She doesn’t look much like Levin but is of a similar enough size and general type that the replacement of one with the other feels fluid and not jarring. Foster also has a fiery turn as Emilie’s resentful daughter, furious about being married off without being consulted about whether she’d like to live the life of the mind too; it says volumes about their relationship that this is the only scene in which she’s even mentioned.
It’s a very stagey play in a lot of ways, full of witty people who speak every word as if for posterity. But that’s part of the joy of it, too—the rich dialogue handily conveys and helps us share in the pleasures of clever people being clever—and all for science! Dead Emilie frets a lot about all the work she left unfinished, all the questions she never answered to her satisfaction, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the play leaves us with plenty of unanswered questions about who’s putting her through this and, most importantly, why. But it still makes us happy to have been there to watch her put through her posthumous paces.
Emilie: La Marquis du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight
Through July 1
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Ave.
Show #53 of 2012, attended June 3.