‘Emilie’ Review: Defending, and Defining, a Life

“Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight” starts with a death adjourned. Emilie (Amy Michelle), a mathematician and philosophe, has slipped through a loophole in the space-time continuum and now lingers in an uncanny valley between life and death. She has been allotted limited time to determine whether her legacy amounts to one of “loving” or “knowing.”

The words “love” and “philosophy” are inscribed on an upstage wall and throughout this play, by Lauren Gunderson, Emilie returns to that makeshift chalkboard to tally up her life’s deeds. As a dramaturgical device, it’s more prosaic than piquant, yet not entirely off brand for a woman whose mind was a perpetual motion machine.

The play’s protagonist is based on the real-life du Châtelet, famed in 18th-century France for her translation of and commentary on Newton’s “Principia” and for a treatise she wrote on the nature and propagation of fire. Such an accomplished woman hardly needs defending, but defining a life is another matter. That is the real brief for “Emilie.”

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In her state of limbo, the marquise discovers that she can’t intervene in past events. Any kind of physical contact will immediately set off a blackout, as if someone has shaken a cosmic Etch A Sketch. As a workaround, Erika Vetter plays a younger version of the marquise, enacting a telescoped version of her life. Where Michelle’s marquise is ruled by an Apollonian temperament, Vetter puts a heavy thumb on the “love” scale. “Are you jealous that I’m sharing orbits with another man?” she teases Voltaire, du Châtelet’s lover in real life.

Under Kathy Gail MacGowan’s direction, many of the actors play multiple roles, underscoring the similarities between certain characters. Bonnie Black delivers compelling performances as both the marquise’s mother, a woman of mean understanding, and the meddlesome Madam Graffigny, a not entirely welcome guest at the marquise’s family estate.

Unlike those two women, bound by corsets, Emilie wears a simple nightgown, which allows her to move freely from her chaise longue to her desk on Sarah White’s handsome set. Her mind moves just as nimbly from an appraisal of Gottfried Leibniz to a discussion of “living force,” a scientific concept for kinetic energy first developed by Leibniz and later elaborated upon by Emilie.

For all the talk of life forces, however, there’s a lack of kinetic energy between the elder marquise and Voltaire, who is reduced to a concupiscent kibitzer with a string of chronic ailments. The first act is also dragged down by exposition. “Did I mention I was married? We’re skipping ahead.” “Did I mention I had children? Three. Fascinating creatures,” the marquise maunders on. Such palavering is wasted time for a woman facing a literal deadline.

Gunderson, whose other work includes plays about pioneering women like Marie Curie, does more than pay hagiographic tribute to her subjects. There are angles of regret in her portrait of the marquise, who ultimately feels that she failed to provide enough opportunities for her daughter. Even as the lights dim, she is preoccupied with “love and so many questions,” and it becomes impossible to tell where loving leaves off and knowing begins.

Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight

Through April 30 at the Flea Theater, Manhattan; theflea.org. Running time: 2 hours.

This review is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

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