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Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Sep 11, 2014
'Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight' continues through Oct. 5 at Central Square Theater
'Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight' continues through Oct. 5 at Central Square Theater  

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, was an 18th century philosopher - or, more correctly perhaps, a natural philosopher: Not someone who worked exclusively in the realm of notions, mind you, but relied on both observation and experimentation to refine her understanding of what the world is and how it works, and then sought to share the clarity and insight she gained from the results. In other words, Émilie was a scientist.

Science, and much of the history of rational thought, has treated women shabbily. Women have contributed significantly to human understanding in every arena of scientific inquiry, but who gets the credit? Whose names pop to mind when the various fields of scientific inquiry, or varieties of scientific instrumentation, become the topics of conversation? In the ancient world, a bright light like the mathematician and astronomer Hypatia might be snuffed (as indeed, she was) rather taking her rightful place beside other significant figures (Aristotle, Ptolemy) at the dawn of Western civilization. In the 20th century, a scientist like Rosalind Franklin might see her contributions to the science of genetics glossed over and all but forgotten. Who knows how many great female thinkers, philosophers, theologians, artists, and scientists might have been forgotten in the interim? And how is it that we suppose ourselves so much more advanced and rational than those who came before us when we not only persist in consulting astrologers, mystic, snake-oil peddlers, and religious hucksters - seriously, against all sense and reason - but shrug off perfectly valid and valuable rational arguments and opinions simply because they are authored by women?

A few exceptionally bright (and fortunate) lights have shone through the ages: Hildegard of Bingen, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Madame Curie. With "Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight," playing through Oct. 5 at the Central Square Theater, the Nora Theatre Company reminds us of another remarkable woman.

The play, by Lauren Gunderson, doesn't barrage the audience with equations or didactic, mysterious jargon. The dialogue sounds natural and timeless to the ear because it's so effortless, and so contemporary; that is, it's been composed for 21st Century Americans. The way she sounds to us, Émilie could be living in Fresno this very minute. More importantly, Gunderson finds ways to underscore and illustrate the rational nature of her thesis - that scientific inquiry and discovery don't stem from authority, and certainly not from the authority automatically invested in men, but rather are there for anyone with the patience, talent, and intelligence to define and pursue them. Truth, in other words, isn't gender dependent.

Curiously - and slyly - Gunderson presents her play as a lacuna in death's eternal sleep. Somehow, magically, Émilie - someone possessed of a rational, rather than mystical, sensibility - finds herself resurrected, for one night only. It's not a religious experience, exactly; Émilie's theory about it sounds almost Lucretian, resorting as it does to the vastness of space and time to account for her accidental re-creation physically and mentally. It's as though the particles that composed her being at the last moment of her life had, at some far-flung remove, spontaneously and accidentally reassembled.

But there's meaning to be found here, too, not simply astonishment at the inexplicable, and Émilie pursues it, reviewing her own life as though it were a novel (or a play), interacting with figures from her past (including Voltaire, her lover, played here by Steven Barkhimer; including, also, her own younger self, played by Sophorl Ngin). Still, all is not a matter of particles swerving in the dark. There are rules at play, one of them being that resurrected Émilie may not physically interact with any of the shades from her past. For that, she needs to direct (or enlist) her younger self. Otherwise, a moment's forgetfulness, or a torrid embrace, leads to the agony of an electric shock and a momentary suspension of the past moment's re-enactment. This is not a matter of whim, but of theme: Gunderson has effectively cast Émilie not as a ghost so much as an essence of her own mind. The real ghosts are those that waft into and out of her frame of reference: Ghosts of flesh. Never have mind and body been so decisively set in opposition: It's very Cartesian. The central dilemma, and the question Émilie seeks to resolve, is equally derived from the philosophical problem of dualism, or the mind-body divide: What, on balance, provided her life with more meaning? The emotional richness of her adventures (passionate love affairs, card-sharking), or the cooler, more systematic and cerebrally rewarding discipline of organized and unsparingly rational inquiry?

Matters of philosophy and science provide more than a contextual backdrop for what is, in essence, a post-life crisis; they also inform Steven Royal's wonderful set design, a long space rather like a corridor (or a channel) with a huge mock-up of an astrolabe on one end and what looks like the innards of a sophisticated telescope at the other. Flowing between the two is a river of equations - calculus scribbled on the floor in an eye-catching torrent, mathematics literally underpinning the entire production.

But this isn't a show for eggheads alone. There's a wild sense of play about the production, too, starting with the minimal casting: The same actor, Lewis D. Wheeler, plays Émilie's father, husband, servant, and one of her lovers - without so much as a change of costume; and the same actress, Michelle Dowd, plays Émilie's mother and maid. All of this carries an edgy, Freudian sting.

Chelsea Kerl's costuming is pure pleasure, a visual feast that buoys the darker elements of David Wilson's sound design and John R. Malinowski's lighting - elements that are also juicy and fun, all the more so when they dip jarringly into the sinister. (Wilson's sound design sets the tone from the very first: You can believe you're hearing the Music of the Spheres in his layered composition of musical and nonmusical elements.) Judith Chaffee's choreography punches up the play's punch lines, which director Judy Braha sets up with as much grace and delicacy as she uses to guide the drama and excitement of Émilie's journey - a thrilling, poignant journey that embraces the sloppy, necessarily incomplete wholeness of the human experience.

But the star of this show is without a doubt Lee Mikeska Gardner, the Nora Theatre Company's artistic director, who makes her acting debut with the company in the role of Émilie. She plays caustic, warm, giddy, witty, bitter, terrified, gratified, and enraptured with the assurance of a master who knows every color in her palette and understands how to use multiple shades to achieve unique hues. Stepping from behind the scenes to center stage, Gardner reminds us that she, too, is a Renaissance Woman.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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