Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight
Reviewed by Terry Morgan
Greenway Court Theatre
Through Sept. 17
One of the positive uses of art is to shine a light on historical figures that might otherwise have remained obscure — to give someone the credit he or she deserved but didn’t receive in life. A film such as Hidden Figures, which detailed the important contributions African-American women made to the space program, is a good example. The Coeurage Theatre Company’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s play, with the needlessly long title, Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, is a well-meaning attempt to celebrate the titular character’s achievements, but what should be intriguing and inspirational instead devolves into clumsy hagiography.
In 18th-century France, Emilie (Sammi Smith) is a smart aristocratic young woman born into an age when patriarchal society has decreed that women aren’t supposed to be smart. She bridles at the boring strictures of court life, and instead delves into the realms of mathematics and physics, becoming a champion of the concept of force vive, which led to Einstein’s signature equation “E = mc squared.” She also had a romantic relationship with the famed writer Voltaire (Marc Forget), even though she was reasonably happy with her marriage. But as she embarks on her most ambitious work, translating Newton’s Principia into French, she doesn’t realize that her time is running out.
Gunderson portrays Emilie as smugly self-congratulatory with a soupçon of petulance for those who don’t immediately recognize her superiority. Unfortunately, instead of trying to leaven this impression with humility or humor, Smith leans into it, resulting in a performance that repels instead of compels. The playwright defames Voltaire as well, conjuring him as a milksop hanger-on, and although Forget tries to imbue the role with some panache, the script stands in his way.
Julianne Donelle’s direction is visually static and doesn’t mitigate the play’s shortcomings. Tim Paul Vordtriede’s court set is handsome, but the inclusion of a glowing door as Emilie’s chalkboard comes off as pretentious. The main flaw in Gunderson’s play is that in attempting to praise Emilie and her laudable achievements, she forgets to make her an interesting or credible person first. Also, the framing device — wherein Emilie is brought back from the dead to “defend” her life by “Time” and “Space” — is irredeemably pompous, and leads to such hilariously earnest lines as “If you don’t complete this, the Nothing wins!”
It’s regrettable that Emilie doesn’t do its inspiration justice, but at least those who hadn’t heard of this scientific pioneer before may investigate her story further, which is all to the good.
Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles; Thurs. Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sept. 6 and 13, 8 p.m. through September 17. www.greenwaycourttheatre.org/emilie; Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with an intermission.