Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight


Through Sunday, Apr. 14

Sonorous Road Theatre, Raleigh  

Sonorous Road Repertory Company breathes new life into an often-overlooked eighteenth-century scientific genius in Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, by Lauren Gunderson. Émilie du Châtelet, played by the sharp Michelle Murray Wells, was a mathematician and physicist notable for her French translation of and commentary on Newton’s Principia. As the play begins, she wakes up in an absurdist limbo between death and the void, trapped on stage until she can suss out the meaning of her life. Filled with equation-scrawled chalkboards and period furnishings, Nicholas Lease’s set strands du Châtelet on the island of her own life story. Rachel McCay’s avant-garde, period French fashion is just as postmodern, with deconstructed costuming revealing swinging hoop skirts, bloomers, and thigh-highs. 

Save for Wells’s blue gown and Voltaire’s matching cravat, the ensemble is stripped of color, turned into white porcelain stand-ins for the variables of du Châtelet’s life. Unable to directly touch others, du Châtelet often resorts to directing the ensemble, including Sterling Hurst as Voltaire, to perform moments in her life, full of comedy as well as tragedy. In particular, A.C. Donohue provides levity and horror as she plays goofy maids, tittering court gossips, and the haunting specter of du Châtelet’s mother. 

And with scene-stealing sneers, Hurst embodies the bad-for-you boyfriend perfectly. With characters summarizing scenes as they enter them and betraying an awareness of the audience, the staging is an extraordinary vessel for a story that, while historical, is all too familiar. As du Châtelet experiences love and loss while pursuing her experiments on the nature of fire, her experience strikes us as thoroughly modern. Like any women hustling to have it all, she works harder than everyone else and still has to fight for everything she gets. 

While the costumes and set immerse us in Émilie’s purgatory, the lighting and sound do not match the aesthetic, doing little stylistically to fully realize this world. In addition, the movement and framing of the scenes often lack clarity, creating dissonance between the design and performance. Despite this, under Egla Birmingham Hassan’s direction, the production provides a glimpse into a historical life worth honoring. 

The absurdist reality that the physicist is placed in reflects the alienation that filled the days of someone who sent a daughter away and published theories in direct opposition to her lovers. But, in limbo, the only person that can truly guide du Châtelet through her life is herself, as only she needs to be satisfied with its sum. For those like her today, this act of self-forgiveness is a lesson well worth heeding.


One reply on “An Eighteenth-Century Mathematician Takes Charge of Her Afterlife in Émilie”

  1. I have major issues with reviewers that are also highly immersed within this community to give objective reviews. Is there really no one else available to review Triangle performances? And this is no slight to Ms. Koop, however, why even broach this as a means to convolute the review? Recuse performers, technical production staff and family members of both as it might be perceived as biased.

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