Morality, feminism, science fuse amusingly in play
Lauren Gunderson relishes injecting science, history and feminism into her usually comedic works.
The prolific playwright, who’ll turn 35 on Feb. 5, also loves to stare at morality through a magnifying glass.
All those elements appear in a new Ross Valley Players production, “Emilie,” which focuses on a real-life 18th century noblewoman/courtesan/physicist born way, way before her time.
Gunderson depicts Emilie — and Robyn Granh plays the title character — with all the vitriol and vinegar you might expect of a haughty woman whose lifework was being ignored (a status the writer isn’t the least familiar with considering she’s one of America’s most produced playwrights).
The wordy, cerebral “Emilie” is also stuffed, as expected by those familiar with Gunderson’s oeuvre, with humor.
Veteran director Patricia Miller adds a gender-bending twist.
Before the opening she explained that when it came to casting Voltaire she discovered that “the best man for the job was a woman” — Catherine Luedtke.
Miller is wise.
Luedtke, dazzling with arrogance but unstiffened by insecurities, doesn’t for an instant play it as drag. Indeed, her skill turned me gender-blind within seconds of the show’s start (and kept me that way despite a couple of faux sex scenes later on).
Clever is the use of equation-laden blackboards (cleverest being the one on the ceiling), with Emilie chalkmarking a running score between love and philosophy.No surprise, really: Gunderson’s concoctions usually spawn cleverness.
The central point of this opus?
Emilie’s breaking the fourth wall to ask of life, “What’s the point?”
And though ultimately unsure, she strongly suggests the answer is the asking of tricky questions.
She grouses, too, about being restricted by her gender, “There is no place where we are trained to think,” and she charges that if a woman might learn how anyway, she’ll still be mocked and scorned.
Admitted to the prestigious Academy of Science after writing a paper on the nature of fire (having rejected a collaborative effort with Voltaire because she doubted his deductions), she realizes she requires no male partner in life, merely “a candle and a quill.”
Gunderson, playwright-in-residence at the Marin Theatre Company, loads the show in her favor.
By making her vastly wittier than “V” (her abbreviated pet name for Voltaire, that towering Age of Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher known for his wit).
Voltaire’s best remembered, of course, for writing “Candide” and for popularizing Sir Isaac Newton’s ideas — and spreading the fable of that physicist developing his laws of gravity after watching an apple fall from a tree.
Much of Emilie’s life is condensed by the text.
Like a quickie scene (before her death during childbirth) when she divides her time between a poet she’s having an affair with, “V” and her husband.
“I wish I could unfeel,” she moans at one juncture.
And follows with a more definitive, “The only thing that lasts…not people…is physics.”
The play is enhanced by RVP regular Michael A. Berg’s costuming but hampered by its subtitle, “La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight,” and awkward devices such as a dead Emilie returning to life so she can examine and evaluate it, her younger and older incarnations appearing simultaneously, males in her life outside of V being so inconsequential to the plot they’re played by a single actor, and flickering lights that reminded me too much of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”
My top takeaway, however, was that “Emilie, which had been produced in 2012 by the Symmetry Theatre Company at the Berkeley City Club, is consistently amusing.
Though the production toys with physics and formulas — from Newton to Einstein, in fact — a theatergoer needn’t be a genius to enjoy it.
I, bordering on math ‘n’ science ignoramus-hood, can attest to that.
“Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight” will run at The Barn, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross, through Feb. 5. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $12-$27. Information: www.rossvalleyplayers.com or (415) 456-9555.