Sonorous Road Repertory Company’s current offering, Lauren Gunderson’s Émilie La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, is a remarkable play about a remarkable woman. Directed by Egla Birmingham Hassan, it stars Michelle Murray Wells as Émilie and Sterling Hurst as Voltaire. Both stars simply shine!
To say that Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil (1706-1749), also known as the Marquise du Châtelet, was “ahead of her time” would be a gross understatement. Born during an age in which it was unusual for a woman to even be allowed to study such subjects as mathematics, physics, and natural philosophy, she immersed herself in these studies and became an innovative, pioneering thinker. Even though history may merely remember her as “Voltaire’s mistress,” because of their life-long affair, Émilie was truly a tour de force in the sciences.
As the lights come up, we meet Émilie (Michelle Murray Wells’), who immediately lets us know that she has just died. She also lets us know that she is haunted by questions that were left unanswered at the end of her life. Where is happiness, she asks? Do we find it in love or science?
It seems that while Émilie found great joy using her mind, Émilie wanted love as well, and she found that even men who loved her refused to accept her as a great thinker. So, she was forced to choose. Head or heart? Love or passion? Émilie sought an answer through life by pursuing them all, and as she begins the “replay” of crucial scenes in her life that, along with her the audience hopes for an answer.
Michelle Murray Wells’ Émilie is a force of nature. Within moments, she had captured the hearts of the Friday, March 29th, opening-night audience and had us eating out of her hand, breathlessly trying to explain and to understand the meaning of her time on earth. Love versus Philosophy. Science Versus Passion.
The magnetism that Émilie exerted on us easily explains the attraction that Voltaire (Sterling Hurst) would feel toward her. She understood all of the great scientific theories of the day and was even contributing to the world’s understanding of scientific principles. Michelle Murray Wells’ performance practically exudes the intelligence and the wit of the character as well as her passion for both her work and her lover.
Sterling Hurst, as Voltaire, is just as incredible. His Jake Gyllenhaal-esque look, combined with his character’s wit and charm and loveable self-confidence, are at once amusing and attractive. We were as enthralled by Voltaire as we were with Émilie, and we readily understood Émilie’s infatuation with him. Indeed, Wells and Hurst create an onstage chemistry that is saturated with mutual attraction and passion.
The supporting cast is also terrific, each creating three of more distinct characters including a number of delightful cameos. The program lists Samantha A. Matthews as Soubrette, A.C. Donohue as Madam, and Justin Johnson as Gentleman. Through subtle changes in posture, facial expressions, and body language, this trio deftly sells their morphing identities as they become successive characters.
A.C. Donohue’s brightest moments come as Émilie’s mother, as a serving woman, and as a society woman who is eager to perform opera. Be prepared to laugh repeatedly; she got a well-deserved ovation as one of her characters exited on opening night.
An intriguing device is having Samantha Matthews play Émilie during the flashback scenes, so while Michelle Murray Wells’ Émilie speaks to the audience, Matthews’ Émilie reenacts the scene. This adds to the feeling of the play’s dreamy feel, as we wander through the important points in Émilie’s life.
Justin Johnson shines as Émilie’s husband and also as a poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert. He deftly transforms to a new character with a lift of the brow.
Sonorous Road Rep’s “in-your-lap” space is ideal for this production. Scenic designer Nicholas Lease has created a simple set that includes period-specific furniture and a plethora of mathematical formulae on a classic printed floor covering.
Director Egla Hassan makes full use of the space, constantly positioning and re-positioning characters and giving a feeling that motion itself is a key component of the world of the play (in which physics and the “Laws of Motion” are important).
Costume designer Rachel McKay has dressed Émilie in a modified period costume — modified to suggest a kind of “transparency” or a “beneath-the-surface” view of the character. In a nice touch, McKay costumed the other characters in ghostly-white 18th century fashions, thereby underscoring their ethereal nature. The one exception: Voltaire’s scarf — its color matches that of part of Émilie’s costume.
Sound designer Shelley Snapp has provided snippets of music at key points, and lighting designer Alyssa Petrone has taken full advantage of the instruments in the Sonorous Road lighting grid.
From the Department of Picky-Picky: There were a few times that some of the characters needed to be reminded to “find your light.” We are certain this will correct itself in subsequent performances.
Sonorous Road Repertory Company’s offerings are always first rate, and Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight is no exception. It plays weekends through Sunday, April 14th, at the Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in Raleigh, NC; and its three-week run includes a Thursday, April 11th, performance and a Monday, April 8th Industry Night performance — a night when other actors and technicians who are in other shows ought to be able to attend.
This is a “Don’t Miss” show!
SECOND OPINION: March 30th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Roy C. Dicks: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9352; March 27th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/emilie/; March 26th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh BWW News Desk preview: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/Sonorous-Road-Theatre-Presents-EMILIE-LA-MARQUISE-DU-CHATELET-DEFENDS-HER-LIFE-TONIGHT-20190326; and March 24th Cary, NC RDU on Stage interview with playwright Lauren Gunderson, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/2019/03/24/transcript-lauren-gunderson-on-science-and-storytelling/ and March 24th podcast audio interview with playwright Lauren Gunderson, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/podcast/podcast-ep-13-science-and-storytelling-with-playwright-lauren-gunderson-and-director-egla-hassan/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the March 31st Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/03/sonorous-road-reps-provocative-production-of-milie-features-five-flawless-performers/.)
Sonorous Road Repertory Company presents ÉMILIE: LA MARQUISE DU CHÂTELET DEFENDS HER LIFE TONIGHT at 3 p.m. March 31, 8 p.m. April 5 and 6, 3 p.m. April 7, 8 p.m. April 8 Industry Night, 8 p.m. April 11-13, and 3 p.m. April 14 at the Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in The Royal Bakery Building, 3801 Hillsborough St., Suite 113, Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $16-$20 ($10-$16 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), including fees.
BOX OFFICE: 919-803-3798 or https://sonorousroadrep.org/tickets.
INFORMATION: 919-803-3798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHOW: https://sonorousroadrep.org/emilie and https://www.facebook.com/events/833072213693641/.
2019 SEASON: https://sonorousroadrep.org/shows.
VENUE: https://www.sonorousroad.com/, https://www.facebook.com/sonorousroad/, and https://twitter.com/sonorousroad.
PARENTAL ADVISORY: Sonorous Road Rep cautions, “Due to mature themes [this show is] recommended for ages 14 and up.”
Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (French writer, physicist, mathematician, and philosopher, 1706-49): http://www.britannica.com/biography/Gabrielle-Emilie-Le-Tonnelier-de-Breteuil-Marquise-du-Chatelet (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://projectvox.org/du-chatelet-1706-1749/ (Project Vox), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89milie_du_Ch%C3%A2telet (Wikipedia).
Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight (2009 Costa Mesa, CA dramatic comedy): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/857/emilie-la-marquise-du-ch%C3%A2telet-defends-her-life-tonight (Samuel French, Inc.), https://sites.google.com/site/emiliedefendsherlifetonight/ (fan site), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89milie_du_Ch%C3%A2telet#Legacy (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Lauren Gunderson (Atlanta-born San Francisco playwright and screenwriter): http://laurengunderson.com/ (official website), http://laurengunderson.com/category/blog/ (her blog), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/27155 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm4454013/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/LaurenMGunderson (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/LalaTellsAStory (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Gunderson (Wikipedia).
Egla Birmingham Hassan (Flower Mound, TX director): https://www.facebook.com/egla.hassan (Facebook page).
REVIEWERS: Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.