Among playwright Lauren Gunderson’s growing output are historical plays about women scientists who have not gotten their due: Polish physicist and chemist Marie Curie and British engineer Herta Ayrton in The Half Life of Marie Curie, and American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt in Silent Sky. Now Duende Productions is offering the first New York production of her 2009 Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, about possibly the first French woman physicist. While Kathy Gail MacGowan’s production is stylishly elegant, the play remains challenging and confusing to those of us who know little or nothing about Du Châtelet.
Gunderson uses two actors to play Emilie and writer Voltaire who was her mentor, companion and lover, and then three actors to play everyone else, from Emilie’s mother, husband and daughter, to servants and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton and poet Jean-Francois de Saint-Lambert. As they do not change their costumes, we are never entirely certain who they are when they reappear. Throughout the play Emilie is working on the physics formula F=mv2 (known as force vive) which she attributes to German mathematician and thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Unfortunately, this math will be foreign to most theatergoers who have not studied physics.
Emilie narrates and addresses the audience, then turns back and interacts with the other characters on stage. She also keeps score in chalk on the walls as whether Love or Philosophy is in the ascendance. The play, cast as a flashback, has very short scenes so that a great deal passes in a short time. While the first act seems to be bits and pieces, the second act settles down into a more dramatic confrontation between Emilie and Voltaire and becomes more involving. MacGowan never finds the right tone to accomplish all of this.
While Amy Michelle as Emilie stays in period at all times, she has trouble with Emilie’s confusion to both her inability to solve her math dilemmas and her being caught in a kind of time warp. Nigel Gore’s courtly and sophisticated Voltaire is more effective as he isn’t saddled with these problems but remains pretty much the same throughout.
The other actors (Bonnie Black, Erika Vetter and Zaven Ovian) are stylish but do not always distinguish their multiple characters one from the other. Particularly problematic is that Erika Vetter is sometimes Emilie when young, sometimes her daughter, and at other times serving maids passing through. The production is quite elegant from the blue and beige 18th century room by Sarah White to the chic period costumes by Christina Beam. The lovely original music is by Ian McNally.
Although you learn a good deal about Emilie’s career to her writing her Institutions de Physique (Foundations of Physics) to her translation of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica into French, which is still the standard translation, and her being taken for granted by male scientists, there is not much context. What else was going on at the time? How did Emilie’s husband feel about the friendship with Voltaire who lived with them for long periods of time? When all three move to Luneville, we are told the court is there, but is that the royal court of Louis XVI or does this mean something else? This production of Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight would be best for students of science. It would have helped greatly if there had been program notes explaining the science and the context we needed to know.
Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight (through April 30, 2023)
The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.eventbrite.com
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes including one intermission