Theater: Free Spirit

The Early Feminism of Emilie

By Charles Brousse

I have to admit that I tried very hard to like Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) current production of Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight. RVP’s choice of the play indicated a welcome desire to tackle something more difficult than the usual light-hearted community theater fare and the subject—playwright Lauren Gunderson’s probe into the life and times of what she claimed to be an overlooked female member (Emilie du Châtelet) of the male-dominated French Enlightenment—struck me as a worthy endeavor. The fact that her protagonist was closely associated with Voltaire, one of my favorite literary heroes, made it seem even more enticing.

So, as my companion and I settled into our front-row seats at the venerable old RVP Barn Theatre, I was prepared to forgive any small annoyances if the evening ended on a generally favorable note. As it turned out, that was a high bar to clear. The reasons for this partly lie with the play, partly with the production directed by Patricia Miller and partly with my own approach to theater criticism. Since I’ll be explaining the latter in next week’s column, let’s deal here with the first two.  

In various program notes, interviews and other public statements since what RVP’s press release refers to as a “dramatic comedy” debuted at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California in 2009, Gunderson has made it clear that her intention with Emilie is to help correct what she considers a historical bias that caused this “badass genius beauty” (her words) to be virtually ignored when compared with her male counterparts. This has happened despite the fact that she was a true hero of the Enlightenment, the toast of Europe and whose mastery of math, physics, linguistics, philosophy and the art of courtship (!) had far-reaching effects on subsequent developments. In other words, the implication is that her contributions were as significant, or nearly so, as the era’s more famous names—Newton, Leibniz, Rousseau, Kant, Locke and Voltaire (with whom she had a 16-year extramarital affair)—but they have been lavishly honored and she, because of her gender, is forgotten.

OK, if true, that’s a good reason to set the record straight. The fact that she was also a free spirit who defied society’s expectations about women’s roles, a precursor to today’s feminist revolution, makes her an even more attractive literary subject. To prove her case, Gunderson has Emilie’s ghost lead us through her life from her first meeting with Voltaire when she was 27 to her death at age 44 after complications of childbirth.

Although structurally awkward, it’s an interesting journey—there are lots of names dropped, lots of arcane equations written on a blackboard (and even the ceiling) and spirited discussions of theories about natural phenomena, all mixed with erotic episodes—to the point that Emilie feels more like an ideology-inspired history lesson than a play. Furthermore, when all was said and done (and additional research of my own completed) I couldn’t find any major substantive contributions to Western intellectual thought beyond her championship of Newton’s Principia Mathematica on the European continent and the fact that she provided Voltaire with a sumptuous residence for 16 of his most productive years.

With so much scientific and mathematical jargon being bandied about, it would have been helpful if director Miller and her actors had concentrated on bringing out the human side of Gunderson’s characters. Instead, a group of multiple castings—Neiry Rojo as (alternately) the young Emilie, her daughter, and Voltaire’s coquettish niece who eventually lures him away, and Tamar Cohn and Shoresh Alaudini also playing a multitude of roles—make the characters feel superficial. Likewise, Robyn Grahn’s Emilie and Catherine Luedtke’s Voltaire (a woman playing this great man of letters!) seem like they inhabit separate worlds. No surprise, then, that the whole enterprise—which is alive with physical activity—lacks the emotional heft that Gunderson’s protagonist loudly extols.

Texts like these are difficult fare. I can’t fault RVP for giving it a good try.

NOW PLAYING: Emilie runs through February 5 at the Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555;

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