SVSU tackles some heady issues in it’s latest StudioXP production Emilie; La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life by Lauren Gunderson. The production successfully creates an environment in which audience members are left to confront their own opinions on love and knowledge, life and legacy. In this play, Emilie, one of the foremost thinkers and scientists of her time, is torn between her work and her passions. An age-old dilemma becomes its own ‘living force’ with the smart direction, strong technical elements, and solid acting.
First-time director Brianne Dolney shows her directing ‘chops’ with some creative choices. Her scenic concept, with co-concept creator Felicity Soares, gives the audience foreknowledge of the major themes of the play upon entering the theater. Dolney is also able to create some wonderful, audience-pleasing stage pictures. The images themselves tell the story of the play. Her knowledge of the material and her subject are clear in engaging the complex themes. She is also able to bring out of her actors the performances necessary. Kudos are due to Dolney.
The simple stage design keeps focus on the acting without distracting from the story. A chalkboard against the back wall lets the audience in on the major discussion points. ‘Love’ and ‘Philosophy’ as a device to score a running tally of what her life became told us for what we were there. The ‘f=mv’ formula in between told us how Emilie would approach the ‘problem.’ A atom adorned with hearts and a floral nucleus by Scenic Artist Katie Mishler provided a sense of beauty that would be carried through other design elements. Costume Designer Katie Sherwood brought some wonderfully era-appropriate costumes. The choice to dress Emilie in all white gave her a neutrality amidst the colorful garb of the other actors. The sound design by Izzy Powell brought the classic music of the time. The effects also help to tell the story. The lights, by designer Vincent Papjesk, provide the focus where audience members should direct their attention. Hair/Makeup Designer Chloe Velez must have had a fun time coming up with some delightful wigs and faces popping with white powder.
Holly Grief as the lead, Emilie, had to shoulder much of the action. She displayed the charm and nuance required of her role. She did not play a living human, but rather a ‘living force,’ similar to the work she spent her life pursuing. Her on-again-off-again romantic relationship with Voltaire, played by Scott LaMont, were some of her best moments. The conflict between resolve and vulnerability becomes a hallmark of Grief’s performance. Occasionally, she walked out of her light, but that is really minor for a performance that deserves acclaim.
LaMont as the passion-driven Voltaire gives a standout performance. In the beginning, he ‘plays the jester’ with a very natural sense. Later, though, when his condescension and passions get the best of him, he is at his best. He challenges Emilie about her work challenging the ‘genius’ Sir Isaac Newton. He betrays her a second time pursuing a romance with a relative. He ultimately plays the dutiful (although somewhat jealous) friend. Again, he portrays the conflict well.
The rest of the cast play multiple characters throughout the show. Richelle Arguello plays as a stand-in for Emilie when she comes into contact with other characters. (As a ‘living force,’ Grief-as-Emilie cannot come into human contact with others without serious consequences.) Arguello gives a strong performance when portraying the resentful Gabrielle, Emilie’s daughter. Melanie Frasca gets her chance when playing Emilie’s proper and domineering mother. Silas Vincent later plays Emilie’s new love with grace and sensitivity.
The show challenges audience members, while giving them a pleasant evening out.Grief, LaMont, and Arguello give performances that draw in audience members. Dolney’s staging helps tell the story of a woman battling a sexist system… and herself. The show is monologue-heavy, so there are occasional spots when the play may drag. This StudioXP production, running tonight at SVSU, gives the audience a thinky, enjoyable couple of hours.
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