WAM revives 'Emilie' complete with original cast

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LENOX — Patrons of Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse are in for a surprise when they come to see WAM Theatre's staging of Lauren Gunderson's "Emilie: La Marquise Du Ch telet Defends Her Life Tonight."

WAM artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven has transformed the auditorium into a proscenium theater "jewel box" for the occasion.

Absent is the upstage bridge and vomitorium passageways where actors enter the stage. Instead, audiences will find side curtains enclosing the central seating area and a set by Juliana von Haubrich with walls instead of the more usual abstract scaffolding.

WAM is remounting the production it presented in 2013 at Barrington Stage. A nomadic company, WAM stages productions at theaters throughout the region.

For two hours, Kim Stauffer as Emilie takes stock of her French aristocratic life in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. Known primarily as renowned writer and philosopher Voltaire's lover of 15 years, she was accomplished in physics, mathematics and linguistics, uncommon for a woman of that time. Her life over, she searches for a formula to make sense of her achievements in love and science.

"She was upper class, high society," explained Stauffer, her blue eyes catching the afternoon light in the Playhouse lobby. At a very young age, Emilie's father recognized her keen intellect and engaged tutors, allowing her to refuse suitors in search of a husband who would let her continue learning, Stauffer said. A rebel and eccentric, "she was absolutely driven to know truth, to know more."

In addition to her own achievements, Emilie translated Isaac Newton's work, and lived in an open marriage with her "heart-mate" Voltaire, who published her work after she died in childbirth by another lover.

"This is the toughest role of my career so far, but also one of the dearest," said Stauffer, who has tackled Kate in the "Taming of the Shrew" and Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire." "I cannot wait to step into those shoes every night, there's always something new."

Also reprising their roles are Oliver Wadsworth as Voltaire, Suzanne Ankrum, Brendan Cataldo and Joan Coombs.

"It is a passion project for me, I had to do it again," van Ginhoven explained. "We did it so early in WAM's journey, not many people were able to see it. Since the political climate now is so different, her story is much more relevant and our times more similar.

"All of the advances we have made towards gender parity are at such risk, we don't feel supported to have equal opportunity. That makes what Emilie does even more courageous."

Four years ago, the play was essentially an observation of a woman overshadowed by a man in history. Now, van Ginhoven says, "if we don't say it, maybe no one else will."

Both intelligent and funny, the play has all the bells and whistles that people love, she explained: "nice costumes, wonderful lights and sound, great classical-flavored content, smart and recognizable characters, it ticks the boxes of anybody who likes classical theater. But it's also a contemporary play."

Van Ginhoven had given up on an encore production due to lack of funds when she saw tap innovator Michelle Dorrance at Jacob's Pillow. "It was such a [technologically] ambitious piece, I thought she [also] didn't have the money when she had the dream to do this."

With seed money from Greylock Federal Credit Union, van Ginhoven prevailed and reassembled her original cast and creative team.

"I believe in our original production so much there's nothing I thought we needed to do differently," she said. Still, "everyday we're discovering new moments." The most significant adjustments have been to sound and projections.

"There are moments we know worked, and we know when to expect a laugh," Stauffer added. "We also know which moments to tweak."

Stauffer appreciates working with the same actors. "That loyalty and understanding of how valuable a creative family is has made all the difference. I feel safe in the room and so make choices that are riskier. We all go further as artists, we're not strangers, and are driven to go deeper."

This is WAM's first staged spring production in addition to its fall play. The company donates some of its proceeds to a charitable beneficiary, and will continue the scientific theme with scholarships for girls to attend Flying Cloud Institute summer science workshops at Simon's Rock. On April 6, WAM will host a post-performance panel of women scientists so girls can ask questions.

"It's exciting to do a play about a female physicist that's going to help young women who want a career in science explore that side of themselves," van Ginhoven said.

For Emilie, she added, learning was everything.

"Love and philosophy is what she's tallying, to find out 'what's the point of my life, what's my legacy going to be?' She's trying to figure out for herself, did I do anything that will matter for anybody? We can all relate to that."

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