The title is unwieldy–but in her day she wielded enough intellectual and sexual heat to amp up the already significant wattage of the Age of Enlightenment. Emilie du Chatelet should be a household name like Newton and Einstein but history has shoved her aside. Because of her gender, her brilliance has been overlooked, undermined, and virtually ignored. But the Nora Theatre Company’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s marvelous work–under Judy Braha’s illuminating and facile direction, and Lee Mikeska Gardner’s extraordinary performance in the title role– shines a beacon on a brilliant, outspoken woman ahead of her time. In fact, that is exactly where and when we meet Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet.
As the play begins, this genius physicist, philosopher, mathematician, linguist, card shark, and oh yes, Voltaire’s lover (or rather, he was hers ) suddenly finds herself at the cross roads of time and space. She appears before us in the intimate environs of the Central Square Theater, in a shaft of light (John R. Malinowski), and a marvel of a scenic design by Steven Royal. What looks like a carpet of equations runs the entire length of the floor and up the wall, equations Emilie deftly worked her way through, reconciling Newtonian physics with Leibniz, with a through line to Einstein’s as yet undiscovered E=MC2!
Don’t worry–there’s no quiz at the end of the show. In fact, the play succeeds in linking the rational and the irrational as Emilie tries to make sense of not only her intellectual legacy, but also her heart–in love and heartbreak. She repeatedly asks the essential question: “What do we mean?” Scenes from her life appear out of the void as she thinks and feels it out, and other actors embody those roles, Gardner as Emilie sometimes entering the action of those scenes herself. Lewis D. Wheeler as the gentleman in multiple roles- father, husband, and Sophori Ngin as the young, sexy Marquise are excellent here. Steven Barkhimer is an hilarious Voltaire, smitten with Emilie’s mind and body, pouty and vengeful when she publicly corrects his math.
But it’s Lee Mikeska Gardner the Nora’s new artistic director who towers above all in her Boston acting debut. Her Emilie is utterly charismatic, warm and funny, strong, true and clear, insisting on her narrative, her story. Indeed, she adored her father because “he allowed me myself.” Has there ever been a better formula for child rearing– or definition of love? Mekeska Gardner’s handling of this remarkably lucid text made me want to pick up a copy of Newton’s “Mathematica Principia,” (Emilie’s French translation for the common man is still in use today!) and search for answers to my own questions. Ms. Mikeska Gardner acts with a suppleness and truth that is deeply relatable.
Something really interesting happens at intermission. Emilie stays on stage in front of us, in character, in her world– but also in ours. As the audience takes a break and mills about, we are now aware of simultaneous realities co-existing; the idea that time/space is a continuum has been made concrete, and perhaps, we ARE literally all in this together. I wondered what would happen if I walked over and touched the actress or spoke to her. No one did. But somehow the theatricality of these moments reiterated what Emilie says in the play about an equation involving Force: F=MV2. “When you square it, you give it life.”
Not sure if my math is right, but I believe that theater is the place where force is amplified and things come alive. Is theater the place where math and alchemy intersect? Theater certainly asks the questions– and according to La Marquise du Chatelet– “the asking makes us last.”
May time and space allow you to see The Nora Theatre Co.’s EMILIE: LA MARQUISE DU CHATELET DEFENDS HER LIFE TONIGHT at Central Square Theater before it closes October 5. Physicists welcome.