Monday, September 22, 2014

A Charmingly Calculating Woman: Nora Theatre Company Presents "Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight"

Steven Barkhimer as Voltaire
Lee Mikeska Gardner as Emilie
History as we tend to study it has largely glossed over the astounding accomplishments of Émilie, La Marquise du Châtelet.  She was a collaborator with and lover of Voltaire.  She was an intellectual sparring partner with the ideas of Sir Isaac Newton and Leibniz.  She published a French translation of Newton's watershed work, Mathematica Principia - adding some of her own improvements to Newton's equations.  She was a shining star of the Age of Enlightenment, yet her memory is dim in our age.  Playwright Lauren Gunderson and Director Judy Braha have done their best to ensure that those of  us who live and work in the shadow of the MIT dome do not forget her life and her work.  The play, "Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight," is part of the longstanding collaboration between MIT and Central Square Theater known as The Catalyst Collaborative @MIT.

The audience enters the performance space at Central Square Theater and is immediately swept into the world of the charmingly calculating woman that was Emilie.  Mathematical equations based on her notebooks line the floor and run up the back wall.   A complex and beautiful wooden structure that resembles an 18th Century scientific instrument covers the opposite wall, and becomes the place from which Emilie delivers several of her speeches - and the place where she keeps score on how her life is going in the realms of love and of philosophy.  For this is a play about her striving to find the proper balance between her head and her heart.

Steven Royal's brilliant scenic design and Chelsea Kerl's sumptuous costumes help to set the stage for the telling of this tale of exploration and explanation of Emilie's elusive "Force vivre."

The story is cleverly told as Emilie, long dead, has been allowed by "space and time" to return to defend her life.  Cast members play several roles in flashbacks that highlight important chapters in Emilie's life and work.  Lee Mikeska Gardner, Nora Theatre Company's Artistic Director, is a revelation as Emilie.  She shows La Marquise in several lights - collaborator, coquette, dispassionate scholar, passionate lover. It is a tour de force performance that should not be missed.

She is very ably supported by a strong cast.  Steven Barkhimer is mesmerizing as Voltaire - in his ascendancy and in his dotage.  Soporo Ngin plays the young and alive Emilie with a gleam in her eye that hints of the complex calculations being solved in that fertile brain.  Lewis D. Wheeler plays Emilie's cuckolded husband and several other roles with understated elegance and grace.  Michelle Dowd plays the Madame and several other characters, and has a wonderful scene in which her vocal and emotional strength shine through.

The emotional center of the play for me was a simple moment near the end of the play.  All evening, we have been looking at a simple formula that indicates Emilie's elusive "Force vivre: F = mc.  With a flick of her wrist and a stroke of her pen, she transforms the equation into the familiar E = mc2

The audience responds with a knowing "Aha!"  Emilie turns, breaks the fourth wall and proclaims: "I don't know what that means, but you do!"  In that moment, with those simple words, she helps us to grasp the truth that she has laid the foundation for scientific understanding that is now common knowledge in our century.  It is a wonderful and moving moment.

This play, which caps the 10th anniversary celebration of The Catalyst Collaborative @MIT, also signals a strong beginning for the leadership of Artistic Director Gardner.

The play will run at the Central Square Theatre through October 5.



Central Square Theater Website

Tonight, Emilie du Châtelet, leading physicist (before there was such a word), card shark and all-around bad ass during the Age of Enlightenment returns searching for answers: Love or Philosophy? Head or Heart?

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