ArtsWest finds the right formula with Emilie

Science and theater don’t always mix, but ArtsWest in West Seattle has pulled it off with an  interesting and entertaining production of Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Susanna Wilson.

Voltaire and Emilie

Voltaire (Nick DeSantis) gives Emilie (Kate Witt) a peck during the ArtsWest production of Emilie, by Lauren Gunderson, running through Feb. 20. Photo: Michael Brunk.

Count yourself as a science history geek if you recognize the name Emilie du Châtelet. Emilie was a force in early 18th-century math and physics, and cooked up the notion of “force vive”, that force is proportional not to an object’s velocity, as Newton and others thought, but to the square of velocity. She also translated, and improved upon, Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Hers is still the standard French translation of Newton’s masterpiece.

If you’re a science geek that probably already sounds like a great premise for a play. But wait, there’s more! It’s also about battles between head and heart, of women in science, and a dandy verbal duel between Emilie, played by Kate Witt, and her lover, the pompous horse’s ass and usually wrong Voltaire (Nick DeSantis).

Witt’s Emilie is reincarnated to tell her life story, in which young Emilie is played by the talented and fetching Sara Coates. (I expect Voltaire may have written that if Sara Coates didn’t exist we would have to invent her. But I digress.) Jason Marr is wonderful as a number of men, including Emilie’s husband, a future lover, and Sir Isaac Newton. Jody McCoy plays a variety of women, including Emilie’s ever-so-proper mother.

Coates gets the kissing scenes because narrator/Emilie Witt gets zapped with electricity and the lights go out if she actually comes into contact with the figures from her past. It underscores the isolation she feels as she toils away in a scientific world that very much belongs to the men.

Witt is fabulous and owns the stage, which is literally her blackboard. Director Wilson and designer Dan Schuy came up with a set that is mostly chalkboard paint, and Emilie scribbles her formulae and diagrams all over the place, as well as her running tally of the good points of love and philosophy. Emilie, a larger-than-life force, wins at everything, including cards. Though for a while there she’s not so sure she’ll win at love.

The end was surprisingly moving. Emilie gets pregnant at 42, and it becomes a race between the very probably deadly childbirth and finishing her translation of Newton.

In an interesting touch, Wilson has Witt remain on stage during the intermission, continuing her studies and making notes and diagrams on the chalkboards. Most of the opening-night audience missed it, but I missed intermission; it was too interesting to watch!

Emilie has crackling dialog and vivid characters, the science and math isn’t too heavy, and it’s a fabulous story. Don’t miss it. It runs at ArtsWest through Feb. 20.