Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight – Fascinating and Entertaining

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749) was a mathematician and a scholar of the physical universe in which we find the seeds of modern science. Exceptional in her era, the Marquise wrote a number of significant philosophical essays and books that were well known in her time. Chief among these was Institutions de Physique which generated heated debates and was republished and translated into several other languages and, published posthumously, translation of and commentary on Isaac Newton’s Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica containing basic laws of physics. Other writings were as varied as an analysis of the Bible and discourse on the nature of happiness.

Amy Michelle (Émilie)

An anomaly, Émilie was roundly educated whetting her appetite for intellectual pursuit. (At 12, she was fluent in five languages.) Like all women of her class, she had an arranged marriage through which she became a Marquise. After having three children, she and her husband came to an agreement to live separate lives – though maintaining a household. She began a lifelong relationship with the author Voltaire. The two cohabited many years at her country house which he purportedly renovated and staffed while waiting for her to join him. Judging by both their writings, the liaison was one of love, respect, and a meeting of minds.

La Marquise (Amy Michelle) wakes from death to find herself participating in the last portion of her life. She has what modern authors would call unfinished business: to clarify “force  vivre” (vis vivre), a kind of organic kinetic energy or life force. Those in her past see Émilie dressed while we observe nightclothes. Playing multiple roles are Bonnie Black, Zaven Ovian, and, as the young marquise, Erika Vetter. Christina Beam’s costume design is both correct and enchanting. Wigs are perfect. Sarah White’s pretty set is faux period with some decorative silkscreen and works well to straddle both history and stylization.

Nigel Gore (Voltaire)

Every time Émilie tries to physically touch someone things literally short-circuit. (Lighting-Sasha Lysenko; Sound-Sean Kiely) The dead can’t touch the living so her younger self steps in enjoying affection and considerable sex. La Marquise can only look on. (At one point, she conscripts a chateau guest to slap Voltaire as she can’t.) Occasionally the two speak simultaneously. We watch as Voltaire (Nigel Gore) pursues her with lust, poetry, and respect. As written and acted, the combination is irresistible. In reality, Voltaire dates their meeting to 1729, making her 23 to his 35. The actor has a gray wig and gray hair. He’s attractive and credible as Émilie’s lover.

“I need him, but he doesn’t need me,” she tells us. (The fourth wall comes and goes.) “I want to go where science is done, but I’m not allowed as a woman. Women determine the fate of nations, but there’s no place for us to learn…I am rich, secure, and painfully bored. Then I meet Voltaire, bard, bastard, rebel…and still the toast of Paris.” She resists the “thrilling wreck,” but then submits. Her single rule is honesty. Artifice, of course, in social circumstance, but between them, truth.

Erika Vetter (young Émilie) Amy Michelle (Émilie) and Bonnie Black (a guest)

Director Kathy Gail MacGowan has combined satire with this solid, sometimes intellectually lofty story. Characters mugg, freeze and gambol around Émilie and Voltaire. They form tableaux vivant past the opening of a door in the chateau wall. Against all odds, it’s quite winning. Timing is deft. Depiction of
sex is varied, imaginative, and fun. The central relationship is treated naturally, both characters emerging distinctive. That Émilie shows little emotion in Act I might be tempered with some sign of it so that we’re sympathetic earlier in the play.

Erika Vetter shines in the genre. Her enthusiastic, wide-eyed persona, coltish physicality, and amusing sounds – giggles and at one point an operatic soprano orgasm – are delightful. Later, Vetter solidly enacts La Marquise’s daughter Gabrielle in a serious confrontation about the latter’s future. This in turn reflects strong words that passed between Émilie and her mother, an excellent Bonnie Black.

Erika Vetter and Zaven Ovian

Over the course of the piece, Émilie keeps score between love and philosophy chalking on a wall. We also see projections of calculations/formulas. (Jørgen Skjærvold) Spoken science may make your head swim a bit, but it’s smart and true to the heroine. Also accurate is Voltaire’s single disagreement with her theories when he chooses Isaac Newton and she sides with Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz. Public dispute centered on who invented calculus which was the basis for other scientific theories. Voltaire betrays her causing a breach.

Émilie’s experiments and writing run tandem to her relationship to Voltaire who eventually returns despite her having fallen in love with and taken in an adoring  young poet (Zaven Ovian). “That’s my girl,” Voltaire says. “Not yours, but I’m glad you’re back,” she responds. We follow till the end of her life. The arc is satisfying both to audience and the heroine who discovers her legacy.

Nigel Gore (Voltaire), Erika Vetter (young Émilie)

Playwright Lauren Gunderson has delved into a fascinating life balancing history, philosophy, humor and conjecture of a (wonderfully written) nuanced relationship.

Amy Michelle’s La Marquise is at first a bit taut. We warm to her gradually. She then projects both intellect and affection. Desire often takes a backseat (Émilie’s young self is more libidinous), but emerging with frustration, Michelle handles its signs with finesse and credibility. Belief that she’s patrician and serious about the character’s intellectual investment is immediate.

The real Marquise – Portrait by Quentin de La Tour (Public Domain)

Nigel Gore is a find, utterly delicious in the role of Voltaire. Mercurial in his character’s approach, every tack he takes feels authentic. Cupidity, mischief, appreciation, stubbornness, imagination, and calculation all seem of a piece to the actor’s portrayal. He’s charmingly theatrical when Voltaire wants something and adamant when in competition.

The show requires attention, but its rewards are many.

Photos by Ashley Garrett

Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Kathy Gail MacGowan
Through April 30, 2023
The Flea Theater 
20 Thomas Street

About Alix Cohen (1795 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.