Life and Loves of Emilie Du Chatelet at Open Book

By Daniel Skora

Emilie Du Chatelet was a woman ahead of her time. In an era of male stalwarts, her femininity was unique among the eighteenth century scientific community. Mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, she made considerable contributions to every endeavor she undertook. Two hundred and sixty years after its publication, her translation of Newton’s Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophies from the Latin is still considered the standard translation of the work into French.

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Jonathan Davidson as Voltaire and Krista Schafer Embank as Emilie All photos by Jan Cartwright

The Open Book Theatre is presenting “Emilie” (full title, “Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight.”), playwright Lauren Gunderson’s reincarnation of the life and loves of a woman whose persona and scientific achievements have never received the kind of historical attention they deserve. Gunderson’s play shuns a straightforward interpretation of Emilie’s life. Rather, it’s a highly theatrical, sometimes scattershot rendition that attempts to define her in terms of personality, talent, and her contemporaries.

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Jonathan Davidson and Caitlin Morrison

Emilie finds herself in her own play much like those Forever Plaid guys found themselves in theirs. Emilie is brought back to life by the gods and given the chance to revisit her life in order to ascertain whether the greatest of life’s achievements lie in the fields of love or philosophy.

Yes, the play has more than a smidgeon of the science that Emilie worked so hard on her entire life. Her then radical ideas about the relationship between force and energy, referred to frequently on the set’s chalkboard in the equation F=mv², will mean little to most everyone in the audience. But her ideas laid the foundation for Einstein’s discovery of his famous e=mc² relationship.

Among Emilie’s other passions was a love for the man she could consider both mentor and intellectual equal. Voltaire was a poet, playwright, historian and philosopher who came to live with the already married Emilie (and her husband) seeking asylum from the authorities because of his anti-establishment writings. Their subsequent affair lasted over a decade and a half and much of the play charts their sometimes passionate, sometimes confrontational relationship.

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Matthew Wallace, Krista Schafer Embank, and Jonathan Davidson

“Emilie” is a smart, clever and entertaining piece of theatre. Both biography and romance, it’s a tale of a strong-willed  woman who would fit well into a 21st century environment. It’s intelligent, witty, dramatic, and sexy in an 18th century kind of way. Emilie is nicely played by Open Book’s founding artistic director Krista Schafer Ewbank, her performance especially noteworthy considering that she’s onstage participating or serving as ringmaster for most of the show’s two hour running time. The opinionated and outspoken Voltaire is dashingly played by Jonathan Davidson.

Eric Niece’s set design is simple yet effective. The several large flats used as backdrops do double duty as blackboards used to keep a running tally as to whether “love” or “philosophy” are winning the battle for being the most crucial of worldly endeavors.

Director Sarah Hawkins Moan gives flair and cohesiveness to Gunderson’s script which could very well lapse into disarray in less capable hands. Moan has assembled a talented cast which includes, in addition to Ewbank and Davidson, Caitlin Morrison (Emilie at various ages), Cynthia Szczesny (Emilie’s mother), Patrick Loos (Emilie’s husband), and Matthew Wallace (Emilie’s lover after Voltaire). All play several ensemble-type parts throughout the play.

The production crew includes lighting design by Harley Miah, costumes by Cheryl Zemke, and sound by Sarah Hawkins Moan. Stage manager for the production is Jillian Joie Dahl. The show is produced by Krista Schafer Ewbank.

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Krista Schafer Ewbank as Emilie

“Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight.” Is an interesting, well-played theatrical experience that rewards on several levels. The show runs through February 3rd. Tickets can be purchased online via credit card or by mailing a check to Open Book Theatre Company at 1621 West Road, Trenton MI 48183. Further information is available by phone at 1.734.288.7753, via email at openbooktheatrecompany@gmail.com, or at their website at www.openbooktc.com.


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