Émilie du Châtelet was playing around with physics more than a century before Einstein entered the scene. Her analysis of force and velocity, which she articulated as F = mv², would pave the way for Einstein's much more famous equation. But her gender, years-long affair with Voltaire, and death in childbirth complicated both her life and legacy. Now, she's back to have her say, whatever it takes.
Such is the premise for Lauren Gunderson's rather baffling Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight. It's easy to see why Gunderson was drawn to the Marquise's story: science, scandal, sex--it practically begs to be adapted for the stage. But in trying to turn that story into a two-hour, time- and space-bending epic of female empowerment, Gunderson has simply bit off more than she--and perhaps anyone--can chew.
Despite its failings, Gunderson's play receives new life at The Flea Theater, in a bold if not altogether successful staging by Duende Productions. Under the direction of Kathy Gail MacGowan, the fully committed cast (led by Amy Michelle as Emilie) does what they can to enliven a script that often falls flat--making naughty faces and pulling silly hijinks behind the scenes; as does the production team--creating a jeweled Rococo world as frothy and perfect as a candyshop. Unfortunately, it's not enough. Though the costumes are dazzling, the set lovely, and the actors sincerely trying, the production falls flat.
Admittedly, I'm in the arts, not the sciences, and I've never quite understood exactly why E = mc² was such a world-changing equation, which may be why I struggled to understand what Emilie's entire life work was all about, but in my defense, the play itself doesn't offer much illumination. In one scene, we see Emilie rising from her desk, face flooded with inspiration, as she vocalizes her scientific insight--but at the same time, Voltaire is pathetically whining because she won't agree to have sex with him right this minute. For much of the play, characters speak at each other as though neither hears what the other is saying. Undoubtedly, this can be an interesting way to write a scene or two, but two hours of it gets tedious. And despite the long run time, we never learn what Emilie's discovery really means, or why it's a contradiction of everything Voltaire stands for.
Elsewhere, Emilie's daughter makes her one appearance in the play to berate her mother for denying her the freedom and opportunity she herself enjoys. It's a catalystic realization that rocks Emilie's world--but only for one scene; in the next, she's fully recovered and decided the best way to correct her mistake is to write a book about science. Therein lies, in my opinion, the chief problem of the play. While it's full of interesting incidents that together could form an exhilarating portrait of a complicated woman, it moves too quickly and with too much frivolity to give any of these moments the weight they deserve. Too much velocity, too little force.
'Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight' runs through April 30th at The Flea Theater (20 Thomas St). For tickets and more info, visit www.duendeproduction.org.