REVIEW: “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight” at WAM Theatre

Reviewed by Macey Levin

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Kim Stauffer and Suzanne Ankrum as the dead and the dying Emilie. Photo by Enrico Spada.

Emilie: La Marquise Du Chalet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson is receiving a high-energy remounting by WAM Theatre at Shakespeare & Co.’s Tina Packer Playhouse.  It was previously performed in 2013 in a highly praised production.  The original WAM cast has reunited to once again bring an electric piece of theatre to a Berkshire stage.

Emilie du Chalet died at the age of 42 in Paris in 1748.  She had built a career for herself that was unheard of for a woman as a physicist, a mathematician, a translator, an author and, though married, the famed Voltaire’s mistress.  When Emilie greets us at the very opening of the play, she has just passed away.  She proceeds to tell us of her life in order to define the kind of woman she was so that history and we will remember her.

Married to a military man who is often away fighting in France’s wars, she indulges her passion for physics to the detriment of her daughter.  She also indulges her need for Voltaire, the famed scientist/philosopher. Her initial relationship with him is on a professional level as they work through various mathematical problems in preparation of a book.  Due to his romantic escapades she offers him the use of a rural house and joins him there as his lover.

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Oliver Wadsworth as Voltaire woos Kim Stauffer as Emilie. Photo by Enrico Spada.

Her life now revolves among love, philosophy and physics.  Gunderson has her work on various blackboards to keep score of her experiences with various characters, including another lover, and marks them off as to whether they are part of love or philosophy.  In flashbacks we meet her husband, her daughter, her other self, her new lover, her mother and others as she recounts the twists and turns of her tortuous life.

Gunderson’s script is replete with humor, quandary, romance and crude emotional byplay. There are also myriad references to physicists Gottfried Liebniz and Isaac Newton, they are his competition.  Their theories to Voltaire are often the cause of conflict between Emilie and Voltaire.  One does not have to be science-oriented to be caught in the drama of Emilie’s life, the core of the play.  Gunderson is not only concerned with Emilie’s professional and personal lives, but even more so with her place in the world as an eighteenth century woman.  Her contributions to Voltaire’s work are often ignored by him, his publishers and the public.  She skirts this problem by writing her own materials and having those disseminated.

Kristen van Ginhoven, WAM’s artistic director, has staged much of the play in circular movements as Emilie often refers to the orbits that surround and involve us.  Van Ginhoven’s direction is forceful and economical in that there is no wasted energy and she has created theatrically effective stage pictures.  The production is tight and well-focused.

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Brendan Cataldo as Gentleman; Joan Coombs as Madame; Oliver Wadsworth as Voltaire; and Suzanne Ankrum as Soubrette inhabit Emilie’s remembered life. Photo by Enrico Spada.

Several of the actors play multiple roles and each of those characters is well-defined regardless of the amount of stage time they have thanks to Gunderson and van Ginhoven.  This is an intriguing and provocative production anchored by Kim Stauffer’s tour de force in the leading role. Her Emilie is layered.  One moment she is strong and determined, next soft or seductive.  It is a wonderful, rich performance vigorously complemented by the stellar supporting cast.  Oliver Wadsworth’s Voltaire is needy, exuberant and often child-like, somewhat like Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.  For most of the play he is bewigged as was the custom for 18th century aristocratic men.  When he removes the wig his whole being changes from his posture to his facial expression and the audience feels more sympathetic towards him.  The rest of the cast – Susan Ankrum (Soubrette)  plays the live Emilie and others, Brendan Cataldo (Gentleman) plays Emilie’s husband Jean-Francois and others, and Joan Coombs (Madam) plays Emilie’s mother and others – all bring vibrant life to their various roles.

Juliana Von Haubrich’s imaginative set has built-in blackboards and bookshelves which line the sides of the stage and surround the playing area as if it were an arena here the battles of Emilie’s life occur.  There are also three sets of gauze curtains that are utilized for scene transitions or suggestions of other spaces.  Sound and projection designs by Brad Berridge from the original production enhance the various tones of the play as does Lily Fossner’s lighting.

WAM is dedicated to female-oriented plays and personnel in a profession that is male-dominated.  In addition, the company donates a percentage of their gross box office income to institutions that serve women and girls.  The recipients for Emilie will be the Flying Cloud Institute that offers young women opportunities to increase their knowledge of various sciences.

Attending Emilie is not only a thrilling theatrical experience, it will also assist the Berkshires community.

WAM Theatre presents Emilie, La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson; Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven; Cast: Suzanne Ankrum (Soubrette) Brendan Cataldo (Gentleman) Joan Coombs (Madam) Kim Stauffer (Emilie) Oliver Wadsworth (Voltaire); Scenic Design: Juliana Von Haubrich; Costume Design: Govane Lohbauer; Lighting Design: Andi Lyons (Original Production) Lily Fossner (Remount); Sound/Projection Design: Brad Berridge (Original Production) Joel Abbott (Remount); Stage Manager: Laura Kathryne Gomez; Composer:Vincent Olivieri; Running Time: 2 hours, one intermission; WAM Theatre Company at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse; From 3/30/17; opening 4/1/2017; closing 4/9/2017. Reviewed at March 30 preview.

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