Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight
Ross Valley Players
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of On Beckett, Belleville, and The Speakeasy

Neiry Rojo, Catherine Luedtke, and Robyn Grahn
Photo by Gregg Le Blanc
Women of science have never had it easy. Quick—besides Marie Curie, how many noted female scientists can you name? Because of sexism (that remains to this day, hence the need for programs to encourage young women in STEM careers), many brilliant, talented women never consider the field. A list recently published in Smithsonian Magazine, highlighting 10 female scientists from throughout history, includes few familiar names, and many of these women were discouraged from taking up the scientific method. Mary Somerville had to defy her father to study mathematics. Lisa Meitner could not continue her education beyond age 14 because her native Austria barred women from higher education at the time. Dorothy Hodgkin was one of only two girls at her school allowed to study chemistry with the boys.

So it's wonderful that playwright Lauren Gunderson is shining a light on the life of Émilie du Châtelet, a 18th century physicist, in her play Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight. Her story is undeniably fascinating: daughter of a lesser noble, her prodigious intellect was noticed early in life when at age 10 she was brought to visit Fontenelle, head of the French Academy of Sciences, to discuss astronomy. By 12 she was fluent in Latin, Greek, Italian and German, as well as her native French. She used her talent in math to become a successful gambler, a skill she plied in order to pay for the books she so desired. An arranged marriage brought her the title of Marquise, but after the birth of her third child, she resumed her studies and entered into perhaps the most important relationship of her life—with the philosopher Voltaire.

Unfortunately, despite the rich source material, Gunderson's play lacks a real narrative drive. Nothwithstanding the richness of the story, it fails to engage its audience on an emotional level. Gunderson takes an interesting approach to telling her tale: at the top of the play, we find Émilie (Robyn Grahn) at center stage in a state of shock at having been brought back to life. Like an Enlightenment era It's a Wonderful Life, she spends the rest of the play looking back at her career, explaining, justifying, rationalizing and celebrating her accomplishments.

Much of the responsibility for the torpor of this production lies with the Ross Valley Players five-member cast, who never seem able to find the fire these characters ought to have. It's not that they lack energy, but almost to a person they are unable to express the vitality, confidence and arrogance these personalities require. They never catch the rhythm of Gunderson's language, and their delivery often seems forced and mannered—especially when called upon to laugh. The only exception is Shoresh Alaudini, who exhibits at least a semblance of genuineness and a comfortable, natural onstage presence.

Despite a lovely set from designer Sasha Oaks and appropriate costumes by Michael A. Berg, this production does nothing to overcome the lack of attention that ought to be paid to history's great female scientists.

Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight plays Thursdays-Sundays through February 5, 2017, at the Barn Theatre, located in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $27 general admission, and $15 for children under 18 and students with valid high school or college ID. Thursday night tickets are $22 for adults and $12 for children and students. Tickets can be ordered by calling 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visiting

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