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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

By Jana J. Monji

Under the astute direction of Jessica Kubzansky, this world premiere of Jean-Claude Van Itallie's Light at the Theater@Boston Court in Pasadena is a sparkling jewel of wit, manners and history. It lifts Voltaire from the dusty archives of history and rescues the Marquise du Chatelet from obscurity.

Van Itallie vividly paints a portrait of the necessary social machinations that swirled around an uncommon commoner with a superior intellect who mingled with and often angered the aristocracy in a strict class system.

Tom Buderwitz's set suggests an elegant though ornate 18th Century lifestyle. Sitting under separate arches, the characters in this amusing menage à trois wait for their introductions. First, the spotlight falls on Voltaire (Lenny Von Dohlen) who wears only a loose white shirt and white tights. Even with his salt-and-pepper hair, Von Dohlen's elfin smile and mischievous eyes make him seem boyish.

Emilie, the Marquise du Chatelet (Jeanie Hackett), sits stage left, gorgeously dressed in blue satin and an elaborate bodice but not at all stiff or formal. Hackett gives Emilie a bold, familiar posturing and vocal quality that's almost slatternly, or rather, she adopts a man's sexual attitudes.n. Van Itallie uses her to give frank social commentary.

Frederick, stage right, is a man uncomfortable in his own skin. An early boyhood desire to flee his father's tyranny with a man, ends tragically. Yet he too becomes brutish and demanding when not weetly manipulative. Hansen's gruff countenance and military bearing schizophrenically transforms into a soft spoken lover, trembling under the seduction of kingly power to force events when he meets Voltaire, the older man of his desire.

Intellectual attraction drew both Emilie and Frederick to Voltaire who wished to be a member of their class. Emilie wasn't married to Voltair and in Van Itallie's play, her hubbie never appears or threatens Voltaire's place in her affections. Iintellectual electricity sparks between her and Voltaire,even when physical attraction wanes. Likewise, the king had a queen, but she's even more easily dismissed.

Van Itallie mixes imagined conversationsuse with excerpts from the letters these three wrote to each other. The grand, carefully crafted pronouncements make one yearn for a time before e-mail . Emilie protected and promoted Voltaire within the French court. Frederick, as a king, offered Voltaire greater prestige and protection. Although Frederick outlives Emilie, who died soon after a late in life childbirth, having effectively cuckolded both her husband and Voltaire, Van Itallie credits Emilie's lasting influence for Voltaire's masterpiece, Candide.

Kubzansky wraps this production in confectionary sweetness. Von Dohlen's charm is light and flitting, balancing Hackett's more earth-bound Emilie and the almost morose darkness of Hansen's Frederick.

The production sparkles and teases one to learn more about this lively threesome--a woman whose scholarly ambitions were hindered by her sex, a king whose birthright kept him from finding true love, and a philosopher who wished to be an aristocrat. If only history classes were all this intriguing.

LIGHT Playwright: Jean-Claude Van Itallie
Director: Jessica Kubzansky
Cast: Lenny Von Dohlen (Voltaire), Jeanie Hackett (Emilie, Marquise du Chatelet), John Hansen (Frederick the Great, King of Prussia)
Set Design: Tom Buderwitz
Costume Design: Alex Jaeger
Sound Design: John Zalewski
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Running dates:Oct. 23-Nov. 28
Light, The Theatre@Boston Court, 70 North Mentor Ave., Pasadena. 626-683-6883.
Reviewed by Jana J. Monji on Oct. 23, 2004.
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