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'Urania,' Historical Play by Local Artist, Debuts with Free Gallery Shows

 "Urania: The Life of Emilie du Chatelet" seeks to bring a historical female scientist out of obscurity.
'Urania: The Life of Emilie du Chatelet'
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CHICAGO — Four years ago, Lincoln Park-based visual artist Jyl Bonaguro read a biography about an 18th century French woman whose story she couldn't shake.

Emilie du Chatelet was a mathematician, physicist and writer during the early 1700s. Her struggles were "very modern — trying to balance her work, family, love and her career, everything a modern woman is dealing with," Bonaguro says.

After reading Judith Zinsser's "Daring Genius of Enlightenment," Bonaguro says the ghost of du Chatelet stayed with her.

"I was thinking to myself, why have I never heard of this person, and this controversy over women in science?" Bonaguro said.

Playwright Jyl Bonaguro and the production's visionary Arica Hilton discuss the upcoming performances in the River North neighborhood:

"Here we have someone from the 18th century who just was really lost to history," she said. "I related to her experience as a very busy modern woman trying to juggle a lot on a daily basis. Her story was universal, and I knew that other women would relate to it, too."

While the Loyola University graduate and former School of the Art Institute student typically works in painting and sculpture, Bonaguro says she was compelled to take her first stab at playwriting by a desire to share du Chatelet's story.

On July 25-26, Bonaguro will debut her new play "Urania: The Life of Emilie du Chatelet" at the Hilton Asmus Gallery at 716 N. Wells St.

Arica Hilton, the gallery's owner, is a painter and longtime friend of Bonaguro's.

"She ended up coming to the staged reading of the play in January, loved the story thought it was fabulous, and told me [she]'d love to help you in any way [she] can," Bonaguro said. 

Bonaguro's script was currently entering the workshop production phase, where "people are in costume, it's completely memorized, there's a set and things like that, but it's not a full-blown production," she said. "When I told her that she said 'I'd love to have you do it at the gallery'."

Hilton will also paint an original backdrop for the two performances at her River North gallery July 25-26.

Named to draw a parallel between the du Chatelet and Urania, the muse of astronomy from Greek mythology, the "tragicomedy" tells the story of du Chatelet's life, studies and romantic relationship with French writer and philosopher Voltaire.

The two-day engagement at Hilton Asmus is a free showcase — the first performance of Bonaguro's as-yet-unpublished script, and the full costumed performance for an audience presented by the 10-person "Urania" cast.

"I felt strongly about it being a complimentary two-night performance," Bonaguro said. "I really want as many people as possible to be able to hear her story and experience the script."

Tickets are free with an RSVP, and the theater has an 80-seat capacity each night. Half the tickets for both evening performances starting at 7:30 p.m. have already been claimed, and more will be released this week, according to Hilton Asmus.

Bonaguro said her next stop would be trying to get the script published, and ultimately performed professionally in Chicago and elsewhere. Her broader goal, however, is to "spread the news about Emelie and get the rest of her works translated and published out of French — just recognizing, bringing her out of this lapse in history that forgot her."

RSVPs to the free performances, both beginning at 7:30 p.m., can be made via Eventbrite. Before the Friday show, Judith Zinsser, author of the biography that inspired the show, will sign copies of her book at 6 p.m.

Local actress Ellen Dunphy stars as du Chatelet, costumed by Katy Werlin, a curatorial assistant at the Chicago History Museum, which provided a backdrop for the show's promotional photography.