Two More Weeks to Witness: “Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet” Defend her Life

By Ernest Kearney  —  I sing the praises of the Coeurage Theatre Company!

And sing them lustfully!

The glaring scourge of L.A. theatre —as I often proclaim— is that so little is being done in the way of audience building to assure that the theaters of tomorrow have a future.

I go to some theaters, look about, and my heart sinks when I see I am the youngest person filling a seat, and sadly, I am no spring chicken (though a very robust winter cockerel).

The Actor’s Gang, The Echo Theatre Company, Zombie Joe’s Underground and the Hollywood Fringe are fighting the good fight to instill in the uninitiated the wonder of live theatre, but more soldiers are needed to wage this “forlorn hope.”

In the forefront of these ranks is the Coeurage Theatre Company whose mission statement is startling in both brevity and boldness: “…to make impassioned theatre accessible for all audiences through Pay What You Want admission….”

And over the years they have succeeded in, precisely, this; opening quality theatre to those shut out by Music Center prices.

This, in and of itself, merits the praise and gratitude of this city and its theatre community.

And then they offer a production such as Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, closing out a far, too-short run at the Greenway Court Theatre tucked away on Fairfax Avenue across from the old Silent Movie Theatre.

Walking in on an exquisite set by Tim Paul Vordtriede —which hints at the King’s Private Apartments at the Versailles Palace— the anticipation for what is to come rises to a dangerous height. But, from the moment Emilie (Sammi Smith) appears, a specter to the spectacle of her own tragic history, you give yourself over to the audacious heights towards which this production soars.

Kim Reed-Sammi Smith-Photo by John Klopping

Kim Reed, Sammi Smith (Photo by John Klopping – Courtesy of Coeurage Theatre Company)

Emilie, better known to most scholars, layman or otherwise, as Du Châtelet, is one of history’s more unique personages.  Born in Paris, into a family of the lesser nobility, in 1706, her fortunes would ride on the swell of that social current which would expand into one of history’s mightiest tempests: “The Enlightenment.” 

Du Châtelet’s presence is stamped upon that period: author, Biblical scholar, educational advocate, physicist and translator of scientific tomes. I first became aware of her thru her connection to, and perhaps salvation of, Denis Diderot’s 28 volume Encyclopédie, humanity’s only indispensable “bible.”

But for most of the centuries since her death in 1749, from complications following child birth, she has been overshadowed by her life’s great companion: that icon of “The Enlightenment,Voltaire (Marc Forget).

It has only been in recent decades, as modern scholars such as Nancy Mitford, David Bodanis, Esther Ehman and Judith Zinsser have reclaimed history from a male-dominated bias, that Du Châtelet has not only emerged from Voltaire’s shadow, but he has somewhat slipped into the shade of hers.

The interplay between Voltaire and Du Châtelet is well-documented and playwright Lauren Gunderson mines it skillfully, positioning her story against the verdant background of the emerging Enlightenment; counter-pointing the central relationship itself against the Cartesian theory of the distinct dualism of mind and body –

“Love is science,” Gunderson has Emilie affirm;

“Love is magic,” responds her Voltaire.

Gunderson intertwines the small tragedy of love’s end with the Newtonian terms of bodies in motion and succeeds in presenting a microcosm of humanity’s larger tragedy; that of spirit and flesh, fantasy and façade whose mutual annihilation, like that of matter and anti-matter, is assured by the merest contact.

Voltaire and Emilie’s struggle for validation as individuals within the tautology of commitment to one another is the very script in which the human epic is writ, and Gunderson, much to her credit, does not seek to impose the artifice of resolution on that narrative, but celebrates the struggle.

“To know the universe, be diligent,” her Emilie declares. “To know the heart be brave.”

There is nothing about this staging that is not opulent.

Sound and lighting design by Joseph V. Calarco and Azra King-Abadi, respectively, accent and highlight the staging to perfection. Costumes by Tania Mustafa belie the budgetary limits and bespeak the period superbly, and Carly Wielstein’s choreography displays a fine structured elegance.


To be witness to a fine ensemble performing a strong play under the guidance of a director possessed of both intelligence and finesse is a vintage of near indescribable pleasure.

Emilie Cast-Nareep Khurmi-Kari Lee Cartwright

Nardeep Khurmi, Kari Lee Cartwright in “Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight” (Photo by John Klopping – Courtesy of Coeurage Theatre Company

And such a production is this.

The cast is near flawless with Forget managing to have me days after his performance staring at the bust of Voltaire sitting near my desk and swearing it’s his features I see staring back at me.  The playwright is smart enough to give each of her small cast strong moments and Nardeep Khurmi as Emilie’s husband and last lover Jean François de Saint-Lambert excels in both roles. Kim Reed as the court snob fills that bill nicely, but hits her high watermark as Emilie’s socially smothered mother.  Kari Lee Cartwright portrays both the younger Emilie and her daughter.  It is in the latter role, that Gunderson delivers what seems to me to be one of the favorite contrivances in her playwright’s toolbox – the sucker punch scene.  Of her three plays known to me this is not her most trustworthy ploy, but here it does the job nicely, in a scene where Emilie is confronted by her daughter and accused of arranging the security of a marriage that she herself disdained.  Forcing Emilie to realize she has blundered into the same trap that befell her mother.  It is a jolting scene and Cartwright plays each note of it masterfully.

It is however Smith who embraces her fate, the universe and us with diamond clarity and who gleams the brightest among the gathered gems of this staging.  Not only a feather in her bonnet, but a Roc’s feather.

Julianne Donelle brings all the notes of this concerto together to achieve a harmony of all its varied elements that is fine-tuned to a transcendent tempo.

Courage Theatre Company-EmilieGunderson is the current “fair haired child” of the nation’s theatrical community, obtaining the distinction of being this year’s most produced playwright.

This carries little weight.

The most represented playwright in Samuel French’s catalogue is Tim Kelly.

Tim was a writing machine, who once told me if he didn’t write at least eight hours a day he became physically ill.  He adapted mostly public domain material; Sherlock Holmes’ stories, Frankenstein, and the such.

He adapted a mountain’s worth of such material, made a mint, wrote a few horror scripts, and got produced all the time.

Tim was a wonderful guy, a true friend, and most of his plays are solid, craftsman-like and uninspired.

The “most” anything is pretty meaningless, the work is all that matters.

I’ve seen three of Gunderson’s plays.

One was a second-rate Twilight Zone episode.

One was a solid piece of writing with definite merit.

Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, despite being burdened by an exceedingly clumsy title, is a strong and intelligently structured effort, and while a goodly portion of it is taken from material already written for her, she deftly molds it into a work of originality infused with genuine artistry, and hopefully one indicative of works to come.

** Featured Image: Marc Forget, Sammi Smith in Émilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight  (Photo by John Klopping – Courtesy of Coeurage Theatre Company)

♦    ♦    ♦


Coeurage Theatre Company

L.A.’s Pay What You Want Theatre Company


Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight

By Lauren Gunderson

on now thru


Émilie:  Play Dates:

Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 – 8:00 pm (Alternate Cast Performance)

Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017 – 8:00 pm

Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 – 8:00 pm

Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017 – 8:00 pm

Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017 – 8:00 pm

Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 – 8:00 pm

Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 – 8:00 pm

Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 – 8:00 pm

Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017 – 7:00 pm (Closing Night)

For Tickets go to:
For More Information: 323-673-0544


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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at and Follow him on Facebook.

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