Emilie La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, by Lauren Gunderson begins with Emilie in the afterlife where she retells her life story in an effort to determine whether her life was fulfilled or whether she dies with work left unfinished.
Directed by SVSU alumnus, Brianne Dolney with Tommy Wedge serving as Faculty Directing Advisor and Peggy Mead-Finizio as Faculty Technical advisory, Emilie is performed in the black box theatre with the audience on three sides and five actors, three of which play multiple parts. As a StudioXP production, Emilie is obviously a passion project for Dolney and must have been a rewarding learning experience for her and all of the students involved.
I had never seen a production at SVSU performed in the black box theatre and it is a perfect fit for this play. The intimacy of the space draws the audience into the storytelling. The simple scenic design (Felicity Soares and Brianne Dolney) made for efficient scene changes and creative staging. The blackboard is a perfectly useful centerpiece as are all the black boxes and the two upstage bookshelves. All of these set props and hand props (Madison Mandich, prop designer) are as seamlessly implemented into the production and complementary to Dolney’s cyclical and fluid blocking.
The lighting design by Vincent Papjesk and operation by Morgan Gradowski is creative and well-executed. Favorite lighting moments include the circle of light cast down on Emelie in the very beginning and end of the play, as well as the frequent times when a corner of the stage is lit so that the audience was drawn to that space while the previously mentioned efficient scene change deftly occurs. The sound design by Izzy Powell (assisted by Amber Tanner and operated by Brielle Myles-Williams) helped to create a surrealistic world that was also believable. Whether the science fiction static sound that occurs when Emilie broke the rule of touching a character in her narrative or the party music and clinking of glasses, the sound was integral to the believability of Emilie’s tale.
Holly Greif as Emilie welcomes the audience with a warm portrayal of this pioneer and at times captures the feistiness that a woman of her time must have possessed to be able to thrust herself defiantly into a world dominated by pompous men. Her facial expressions of disdain are particularly impactful and this intensity would have been welcomed in more scenes. Scott LaMont as Voltaire has some wonderfully comedic moments as the premier pompous prick. His performance borders on cartoonish and some gravity would have balanced his hilarity. Richelle Arguello and Melanie Frasca are fantastic in their many roles. Frasca brings a sass to her myriad of characters while Arguello especially shines as Emilie’s daughter in a crucial scene where Emilie regrets shirking her role as a mother. Silas Vincent as the multiple male characters in the play captures the gentleness and adoration of Emilie’s husband and her last lover. All five of these actors have a daunting task in telling this narrative and all five are fully invested.
The rule in which Emilie can not touch another character and needs to endow Richelle Arguello with a necklace key so that the audience now understands that Arguello is now acting as an avatar for Emilie was a clever use of a prop, yet perplexing as to why this was a rule of the play. I am unsure if this is a flaw in Gunderson’s script or in its execution, but the exchange of the prop and the swapping of the actors takes the audience out of a moment. There are a few times where this peculiar rule allows for a humorous moment, but the frequency of it adds to the pacing issues in the production as a whole.
Another perplexing aspect of the play is Voltaire’s wig. While it certainly matches the peacockish performance by LaMont, why are the women, particularly Emilie, in the play without powdered wigs? A fantastic wig might have added to larger-than-life personality that Emilie must have been for her time. The costumes by Karlie Sherwood are wonderful. Emilie’s white dress, whether it was undergarment or nightgown, perfectly conveys that she is ethereal. Soubrette’s wedding dress is absolutely gorgeous in its deep blue and lacey sleeves.
Other notable mentions include stage manager, Quinn Nichols and choreographer Natasha Nash.
This is an ambitious play about an ambitious woman who defied a society of men in her passionate pursuit of the truth. Dolney tells us that Emilie asks us to consider what makes a life one that is fulfilling. As Emilie tallies experiences under the categories of “Love” and “Philosophy,” the audience and Emilie realize that it is the unseen variables that actually matter. Emilie matters because she pursues truth passionately and relentlessly. Catch it tonight so that you can hear the narrative of a scientist who has been overlooked because of her gender.
Performances: November 22 and 23 at 7:30 at Black Box Studio Theatre at SVSU.
Tickets are available at the box office or by phone 989-964-4348