At 21, inventor Philo Farnsworth created the first electronic television transmission, and he came out of it with a biographical play for his trouble.
Soldier Come Home centers on nearly unknown Civil War enlistee Philip Pringle, whose letters to his family eventually found their way into a very successful stage script.
Writers love finding obscure subjects like those to bring to life — and surely, France’s Gabriele Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil gets a signed pass into that club.
Mistress of famed writer/philosopher Voltaire (whom she lovingly called “V”); math whiz for the ages; at once a ceaseless advocate and critic of Newtonian physics and philosophy: Playwright Lauren Gunderson has zeroed in on the qualities that made Ém’s one of the most formidable scientific and philosophic minds of the 18th century. Carlsbad’s New Village Arts is currently giving it up for her in Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, a show whose fine production values pepper some sprightly writing.
But I’m sending you to this one with a lone reservation (and it’s big): The funny tit-for-tat is also nearly devoid of the sympathetic qualities that should make the marquise the human being she was. It’s all about her — and the subtext (almost) be damned.
For one thing, Émilie (the great Jo Anne Glover), back from the dead, is in every scene, only occasionally deferring to a younger version of herself (Christina L. Flynn) amid the need to experience sensuality — and while that’s understandable in view of Émilie’s colossal ego, it does little to endear us to her flesh and blood. The story features V’s blind eye to É’s marriage and her many affairs; É’s obsession over her challenge to one of Newton’s laws; and her desperation to determine whether the heart or the head serves the greater purpose in the human experience.
See? It is all about her.
In typical brilliant fashion, she asserts at play’s end that it isn’t “what” we are in the scheme of things but “that” we are at all – and while that’s a lovely and moving assertion in Glover’s hands, we’re better off to consider the source.
Émilie wouldn’t dare relinquish the stage to another player’s life experiences for fear of the challenge to her ego; she’s the main referent in a series of events that Gunderson won’t let anyone else unfold to completion. It’s hard to believe that so self-indulgent a mind would eventually address matters of the heart in any event, especially those matters that involve domestic life. Gunderson, and by extension Émilie, has to defer to an external force once in a while, if only to gain a foothold underneath the central character.
That said, please do go see Glover, a longtime San Diego favorite and here an orator extraordinaire. Émilie is a consummately driven soul, yet she’s friendly enough in her addresses to us, and Glover melds both qualities like the expert she is. Skyler Sullivan’s Voltaire is boyish and disarmingly droll as he declares “I don’t believe in rules” – an ideal counterpart to Émilie’s lightning-quick temperament. Flynn’s Soubrette and Zackary Bonin’s Gentleman are cast well to type, as is Dagmar Krause Fields as Madam, Ém’s mom. I would have loved to know more about why Madam disapproved of Émilie’s inclinations toward math and science. Gunderson isn’t having it.
[T]here’s a place for everything, and everything is in its place, apropos of historical fiction.
Meanwhile, this is the best tech effort I’ve seen at NVA in a very long while. Director Kristianne Kurner, who also designed the set, clearly has an eye for stage-picture detail – there’s a place for everything, and everything is in its place, apropos of historical fiction. Chris Renda’s lights, Elisa Benzoni’s costumes and Bill Bradbury’s sound are as seamless as they are collaborative. Great work.
Émilie is every bit the relatively unsung hero history loves to schmooze, especially because she was a woman in a man’s world. She worked 18th-century France’s good-ol’-boy network to perfection, even if her petulance sometimes conspired against her. This show does give us insight into her eccentricities, and very attractively so – it just would have been nice if we’d had a better shot at the story behind them.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Feb. 13. Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight runs through March 6 at New Village Arts, 2787 State St., Carlsbad. $32-$35. 760-433-3245, newvillagearts.org.