THEATER REVIEW | “Emilie” by Theatre Pro Rata: Life, the universe, and everything

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I’ll make this simple: go and see Theatre Pro Rata‘s production of Emilie as quickly as you can. The script is fantastic. Shanan Custer, as the title character, is astonishing. Matt Sciple, as the larger-than-life Voltaire, is both charismatic and exasperating (in a good way). The story was none of the things I feared it would be, and all kinds of things I never expected.  It’s great fun, and unexpectedly moving. And it all takes place in a science lecture hall on the St. Paul campus of St. Catherine University. Theater is a strange beast.

“Childbirth, men, and other dangerous sports.”

What was I fearing? The full title of Lauren Gunderson’s unexpectedly beautiful play is Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight. So I was fearing exactly that: Emilie, a woman ahead of her time, railing against the society that robbed her of her rightful place in history, blah blah blah. Don’t get me wrong, reclaiming history and setting it straight so it’s not just a white man’s game anymore is important work. From what we learn in the play, the Marquise definitely warrants further study. But we’ve all seen countless well-meaning, deathly dull plays with an ax to grind about racism or sexism. It’s not that the writers aren’t correct in the notion that people who aren’t male or white deserve proper credit for their role in history and shaping our understanding of the world. But a lot of these sorts of plays aren’t particularly compelling as pieces of theater. They’re certainly not entertaining. However, I was delighted to find that Emilie is not one of those sad sort of plays at all.

“These things are always chance, until they’re not.”

You’d think by now I’d have learned to trust Theatre Pro Rata and Artistic Director Carin Bratlie’s instinct for choosing great scripts. Gunderson’s play is so chock full of fun lines, smart jokes, and wonderful high brow insults that I’m probably going to have to go buy myself a copy. In fact, Emilie makes me want to dig up Gunderson’s other scripts and give them a read as well. She’s a writer with whom I want to be more familiar. Emilie is enormously entertaining, and obsessed with science, things I thought would be mutually exclusive. Gunderson revels in presenting fully human characters going at each other in scientific rivalries concerned with the heady topic of how the human race sees the world in which it lives.

“I’ll deal with the cosmos.  You focus on your pants.”

The two main rivals here are also embroiled in a heated love affair, making everything that much more complicated. The writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire (Sciple) is even more attracted to Emilie’s mind than he is her body. Betrayals of ideas (and ego) are just as painful as betrayals of the heart. When Emilie abandons their intellectual partnership to strike out on her own, and publish under her own name, even Voltaire’s respect for Emilie can’t keep him from thinking (and saying aloud) that she doesn’t know her place as a woman in a man’s world. When Emilie has the audacity to question one of Newton’s fundamental laws of motion, the male scientific establishment really goes nuts. I know that doesn’t sound like it would be hilarious, dramatic, romantic and heartbreaking, but it is.  It’s one of the many marvels of this play, and this production.

“My opinion matches the entire continent!”
“Which makes you popular, not right.”

This is going to sound like an incredibly back-handed compliment, but I had no idea that Shanan Custer had this kind of performance in her. I’m used to seeing Custer in purely comedic roles, many of which she writes for herself. Her comic timing and dry wit are on full display in the character of Emilie, to be sure. But Custer’s well-rounded portrayal of a woman who is fiercely intelligent and recklessly romantic is absolutely breathtaking. You can see the fire in this lady’s soul, and the fragility of her heart. It’s amazing work. Director Bratlie, author Gunderson, and actor Custer have come together in a perfect storm of a performance. And the woman does not get a break. Not only is Emilie present the whole time her story is being told—from the opening moments to the last candle going out at the end—she also remains visible and in character for the entirety of the intermission, writing what would become one of Emilie’s best known works, as well as adding more equations to the chalkboard. Custer is no doubt exhausted at the end of the night, but I’m sure it’s with the satisfaction of a job very well done. It’s a surprising performance in all the best ways. You never quite know what Emilie, or Custer, are going to do next.

“You’re a stunning woman, and an incredible man. Better than me, on occasion.”

Custer heads up another of Pro Rata’s strong ensemble casts. Matt Sciple’s Voltaire somehow manages to remain just as funny and irresistibly charming when he’s being stubborn and petulant as when he’s actively flirting with you..

“Lucky for you we fight in English so you won’t miss a thing.”

The other three actors all play multiple roles. Daniel Joeck really kicks into high gear in act two, where the script lets this second banana take center stage: as Isaac Newton, as well as a blowhard academic, and the first and last loves of Emilie’s life—her long-suffering husband the Marquis, and a young soldier-poet who completely beguiles her as much as he adores her in return. The soldier also sets in motion a doozy of a plot twist that turns the whole story on its ear.

“You are the surprise of my life, the hope of my heart.”

Delta Rae Giordano is having a ball playing society women who disapprove of the way Emilie lives her life outside the rules. The most formidable of these grand dames is Emilie’s own mother, who casts a long shadow over her daughter’s life.

“The mouth should be kept closed when thinking.”

Amy Bouthilette confronts Emilie with the other end of the mother-daughter conflict when Emilie’s own daughter reaches her wedding day. Bouthilette is at her best when she takes Emilie to task for sacrificing her own children to society’s expectations in order to preserve her own freedom. Bouthilette also serves as a stand-in for the younger Emilie in the story, as well as Voltaire’s naughty niece.

“My mother is a picture in my locket. I don’t know you.”

Because the whole thing is set in an actual lecture hall at St. Catherine University, technical elements are fairly rudimentary. Just your basic light switches—on and off—though there’s effective use of candlelight at the beginning and the end. Julia Carlis has dressed the traditional black countertop of a science lab with enough period-appropriate props and drapes to maintain the illusion of another time. Mandi Johnson’s costume pieces allow the actors to quickly transform themselves as needed. Jacob M. Davis’s sound design is as simple, unsettling, and intrusive as the script requires. The audience even gets a brass band ensemble playing the classics at the back of the classroom for pre-show music.  Director Carin Bratlie and her team have all the details worked out from every angle, as usual.

“Science isn’t theater.  You can’t pick the ending because it sounds nice.”

Theatre Pro Rata has taken me to a lot of strange places to see plays performed—a graveyard, a condemned movie theater. I never thought I’d say I was glad they took me back to college (Mendel Hall, Room 106), but when you see Emilie, gratitude is the only appropriate response. It’s a great piece of theater. Very highly recommended.

Read reviews of other recent Theatre Pro Rata productions: T Bone N Weasel (reviewed by Matthew A. Everett), Lovers & Executioners (reviewed by Sheila Regan).

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