The barricade builders of “Les Miserables” may be singing their hearts out on Aurora Theatre’s mainstage this August. But in the much smaller black-box space right next door, a very different sort of French revolution is playing out through the Weird Sisters Theatre Project. “Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight,” running through August 25, is a funny and sexy dramatization of the life of the unconventional 18th-century French genius Émilie du Châtelet.
Decatur native Lauren Gunderson’s 2009 play imagines du Châtelet given a short reprieve from death’s eternal bondage in which the scientist, author, celebrated intellectual, mother, wife and lover of Voltaire looks back over her life to try to make sense of its disparate elements. The play is smart, and far from a stiff history lesson. Instead, it has the fleetness and flexibility of a good Tom Stoppard play in the vein of “Arcadia” or “Indian Ink.”
The small ensemble cast is led by Veronika Duerr as du Châtelet, and she gives the character a contemporary sort of directness, drive and intimacy. We eventually zero in on her relationship with Voltaire, with Joe Sykes offering a Voltaire full of vanity, delighted to find an intellectual equal in Émilie but consumed with insecurity that she might be his better.
Gunderson imagines the two as kindred spirits, almost isolated from the rest of the world by their unconventionality and quick wit. They’re happy to walk out alone together into the exciting new intellectual frontier opened up by Newton’s new conception of the universe, and why not? They bring the best of sex, art, refinement, science and culture along with them.
Pared-down sets and costumes help give the play a sense of simplicity. Especially well done are scenes in which Émilie and Voltaire try to see if they can measure the weight of fire (he wants to fudge the books, she declines) and short scenes between du Châtelet and her husband and daughter.
“Émilie” clips along at a nice pace, though I think the end becomes slightly problematic in that Gunderson has set herself an impossibly ambitious task: a unifying theory of physics that could account for life and love. We’re supposed to witness a genius mind take in, comprehend and derive meaning from life and existence. The final realization feels both too pat and too broad.
The playwright is prefiguring future developments in physics, while working with alchemical elements and seduced, as the age was, in holding mathematics as paradigmatic of life’s ultimate rationality. I’d be somewhat at a loss to explain the final realization, and du Châtelet seems as wise at the beginning as she does at the end. This may be one of the inherent problems of a play about the intellectual journey of a genius: it’s difficult to dramatize a learning curve.
Nonetheless, “Émilie” is a compelling look at a struggle to create a meaningful life and to balance the often divergent pursuits of love and of knowledge.