Sunday, January 28, 2018

A force to be reckoned with

Jonathan Davidson and Krista Schafer Ewbank

Every so often - and it occurred again this past week - I'm asked to name my favorite play. If we're talking about musicals, I have a quick and easy answer: Sweeney Todd. Or another Stephen Sondheim masterpiece, A Little Music, depending on my mood that day.

But it's a tough call when it comes to comedies and dramas; the list of possibilities is far too long to single out just one or two. If pressed, however, I've long identified both Copenhagen by Michael Frayn and Proof by David Auburn as distinct possibilities, with Doubt by John Patrick Shanley and Equus by Peter Shaffer as close runners-up. What appeals to me is that each is a smart, complex and thought-provoking script with an important story to tell. And when given a well-conceived and executed production, the result is an amazing experience that leaves theatergoers with serious questions to ponder.

That's precisely what happened this past Friday night at Trenton's Open Book Theatre Company, which provided me with yet another script to add to my potential list of favorites.

Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson brings forward from 18th-century France one of the most brilliant minds you've never heard of till now, and her arrival from the afterlife allows her to finally resolve a major, game-changing question of science she worked on much of her entire adult life: Is it F=mv or F=mv2 (squared)? (I won't bother you with the details, but her research helped lead to Einstein's better-known equation.)

Described by the playwright as a "tour de force," Emilie was a "physicist at a time before there was such a word, a mathematical genius, a card shark (the practical use of her mathematical genius), a published author, and the love of Voltaire's life. And she was a woman. Which made everything I just mentioned ten times harder to achieve."

All of that is true, as Emilie lived at a time when women were mostly to be seen, not heard - especially when it came to important matters reserved exclusively for men. Yet that didn't stop her or her work, despite the ridicule and scorn that was tossed her way by - supposedly and incorrectly - her betters.

If that sounds a bit sterile and boring, it's not, as Gunderson frames the narrative as Emilie's personal struggle to define and judge her life and accomplishments according to her perceived battle between love and philosophy - or better yet, her affairs of the heart versus her affairs of the head. Is one a better way to achieve your goals than the other? If so, which?

It's complicated stuff, to be sure. And as such, it's important for such a historically fact-driven script to fall into the hands of a perceptive and creative director who can discover the many levels of the characters' humanity and deliver a riveting and passionate interpretation that otherwise could end up as a very dry snooze fest. Sarah Hawkins Moan does that - and more - with an engaging production that seemingly breezes by much quicker than its actual 120 minutes (give or take, with a 10-minute intermission).

Much of show's charm is the result of the deeply layered performance of Krista Schafer Ewbank, Open Book's founder and producing artistic director, who brings Emilie to life. Emilie (who never leaves the stage) is the show's narrator, and Ewbank's storytelling abilities are excellent. Every skill in her actor's toolbox is put to great use and perfectly serves to define her character; there's not a single utterance or movement that doesn't ring true. And Ewbank never made me feel like I was being lectured to.

Since much of the show revolves around Emilie's intense, yet volatile relationship with fellow rabble-rousing philosopher and writer (and 12 years younger) Francois-Marie Arouet (a.k.a Voltaire), an equally strong actor is required. Hence, Jonathan Davidson was a wise and superb choice for the role. Just like every other show I've seen him in, Davidson lives and breathes the role; he's fully invested in his character at all times, with a wide range of emotions that are perfectly played. His interactions with Ewbank are often quite delicious.

Also in the production are Caitlin Morrison, Cynthia Szczesny, Patrick Loos and Matthew Wallace, each of whom play whatever other characters the story requires. (Morrison also doubles as Emilie in certain flashbacks; see the show yourself to find out why.) Although these are mostly under-defined, slightly more-than-sketchy roles, they are integral to the story and all serve the show quite well.

Technical aspects of the production are up to Open Book's usual standards: scenic design is by Eric Niece (I've been wondering where he's been lately); costume design is by Cheryl Zemke; and Harley Miah once again does an excellent job lighting the show. (There's one effect used in the show multiple times that I especially love.)

The Bottom Line: Open Book Theatre Company is one of a handful of Metro Detroit's young professional theater companies I predict will have a long and fruitful life, and Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight is a fine example of why I say that. Downriver residents are especially blessed to have them there!

Performances run through Feb.3. For show details, CLICK HERE!

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