Arts & Events

Theater Review: 'Emilie,' by Symmetry Theatre at the Berkeley City Club

By Ken Bullock
Thursday June 14, 2012 - 04:43:00 PM

"Sometimes Truth is snuffed out by bombast." In the old salon of the Berkeley City Club, now of course a theater, a lady from the salons of the early 18th century introduces herself as Emilie, La Marquise Du Chatelet--and gasps for breath. She's dead, and throughout the play will narrate her remarkable life, with many asides. 

The Marquise was an intimate of Voltaire, helping him avoid a "lettre du cachet" which would've had him locked up in the Bastille--and at the same time, a champion of Leibniz, her erudite friend's bete noire (as 'Candide' amply proved), in the controversy over his "correction" of Newton's Second Law of Motion (F = ma: Force equals mass times acceleration) by squaring the more Aristotelian F = mv (Force equals mass times velocity), in order to bring energy "alive," an active force avoiding entropy in a living universe. Newton's pronouncement became known in France as "Force Morte," Leibniz's as "Force Vive." 

Emilie Du Chatelet helped lend experimental proof to Force Vive--for another scientific problem, she describes how she and Voltaire--who she refers to as "V," sounding like "Vive"--in the midst of an affair, "spend all night, every night, setting things ablaze," to prove something else again.  

The old controversy has been shown to be something of a confusion; the equations bear on Conservation of Motion and on Kinetic Energy, respectively. But the Marquise's highly valid work--and her bravery, facing scorn as a woman from the men's club of the Academie--has stood the test of time. 

Laura Gunderson's play plays with time, not only with a dead woman as narrator of her own, just-finished life, but with a variety of anachronisms to "fix," or unfix, the distance between the early 18th and 21st centuries. Symmetry Theatre has taken up the challenge with verve, and company founder Chloe Bronzan's distinguished maiden run as director casts the play in its most appealing light. Bronzan says it best--her own understanding of the play, the way she stages it: " ... this is Emilie's storytelling within a fever dream and filtereed through her own perception of these people. This is her play. She is in control as the playwright, director and puppeteer of these memories ... or is she?" 

Responding to this set-up, Symmetry's Danielle Levin plays a game and charming Emilie, speaking directly to the audience, stepping in and out of the action, often ceding it to her younger self, a self-possessed Blythe Foster, who also fleshes out Voltaire's naughty niece, with whom he has a fling, right in Emilie's chateau under the Marquise's nose. Robert Parsons, as the redoubtable icon of the Enlightenment, plays a perfect oxymoron: deftly obtuse. This isn't a flattering portrait of the master of dissent in the late days of the Royalty. Gunderson's Voltaire is marked by his self-absorption, pettiness and a flighty temperament. And Parsons gets that perfectly, often with droll humor. 

Emilie and V. are the principals; at times, warring divas. The rest of the excellent cast constitutes an ensemble, appropriately in constant motion, representing everyone else, from Emilie's family (Marie Shell as her mother), to a kind of wind-up specter of Newton (Colin Thomson), from the President of the Academie to her gallant admirer Jean Francois (Tyler McKenna), sometimes hovering ominously, heads lowered, on the fringe of the action, in the shadows cast by Kate Boyd's lighting, otherwise moving in a kind of corps de ballet around the principals as one scene or tableau morphs into another. Steve Bage's sound and music helps power this sense of constant motion. 

Gunderson's script tends to be quick and bright, often giving the characters and their situations a light touch. But the puppet show's not always a perfect stylization, nor do the anachronisms match up with what they make light of. Attitudes expressed tend to be more 19th century than Ancien Regime. An air from 'Carmen' gets thrown in. And there's often that sense of puppet show that Ford Madox Ford complained of in novels--the puppeteer, here the playwright--interrupting by winking at the audience, assuring that everything's under control, that the views expressed are her or his own, all up-to-date ... The dialogue sometimes too closely resembles the silly chatter of sitcoms, not adding a touch of lightness so much as lightweightedness.  

Yet the performances are entertaining throughout. And the triumph is the company's--Symmetry, with just a few plays under its belt, all of different styles, is coming of age most precociously--like their heroine in 'Emilie.' 

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2, through July 1. Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant. $15-$25.