BWW Reviews: Taffety Punk's CHARM - Not Your Standard Historical Literary Fare

By: May. 11, 2014

Much like 19th century scholar, journalist/writer Margaret Fuller, the heroine of Kathleen Cahill's Charm, DC's dare-to-be-different Taffety Punk Theatre Company continues to make it abundantly clear that it won't be put into a box and do what every other theatre company in the area does. Probably best known for its all-female Shakespeare productions, the ambitious company founded by some of our city's finest actors also offers a series of lesser known modern plays that one's unlikely to see at many of the large subscription-based theatres in the metro area. Quirky and thought-provoking is usually the name of the game with those ones. Cahill's Charm, now playing in rep with Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry, is no exception.

Under the astute direction of Kelsey Mesa, a strong cast introduces or reintroduces us to Margaret Fuller, the woman who went head to head with some of the great literary figures of the day - from Hawthorne and Emerson to Thoreau - and dared to challenge what was acceptable for women to do in her day. She was simply content to be herself no matter what others thought and her self-confidence, ambition, and drive served her well. She was the first female foreign correspondent and the first editor of The Dial, a transcendentalist journal dominated by men, and an outspoken discussant of numerous issues of the day from slavery to other human rights concerns. A serious play with comedic undertones, it's very much a witty historical piece that's written for contemporary audiences - those that have an affinity for literature and history, and even those who don't.

A series of vignettes that look back on experiences Margaret Fuller (Lise Bruneau) had in her professional and - more problematic - personal life comprise Cahill's play, all of which provide insight into Fuller's ideals and her extreme self-awareness. Though cumbersome dresses (period-appropriate and well-designed by Tessa Lew) may confine our non-traditional heroine physically, her ideas aren't confined by anything. Cahill knows how to write about the conflict she faces - both with others and within herself. As such, as we go on her journey, we know what she's thinking at every moment and how others are reacting to her. While this 'emotions on your sleeve' approach to storytelling could - in lesser hands - lead us into 'campy acting' territory with little way out, the cast of eight T-Punkers proves to be more than up to the challenge of balancing the comedy inherent in Cahill's script and giving us glimpses of authentic and relatable humanity.

The chameleon-like Lise Bruneau, in particular, brings the necessary amount of strength, but also vulnerability to her portrayal of the complicated Ms. Fuller. As embodied by Bruneau - who I've learned by now can pretty much play any role and do it enviably well - we can fully understand and appreciate multiple dimensions of this richly unique character. Margaret may present with a steely exterior in the professional realm and be a true example of a go-getter, but when she gets entangled in romantic quandaries - understanding full well she's not the 'ideal catch' for most men of the era in which she lives - we can see the vulnerability shine through. As naturally performed by Lise, one can't help but root for Ms. Fuller to succeed despite all of the obstacles put in front of her, and feel her heartbreak when things don't go as well in her personal life as they do in her professional life.

While Bruneau is reason enough to give this show a chance, the rest of the cast also brings something special to the proceedings. Though cast members shine on an individual basis, the way they work together as a cohesive unit is most noteworthy. I'd go as far as to say the ensemble work is among the best you'll see in DC right now.

Tonya Beckman, as Ms. Lydia Emerson (yes, Ralph Waldo's spouse), has a keen sense of comedy and serves as the perfect foil to Bruneau as she represents women who act in a way that's acceptable for the era. Ian Armstrong (Ralph Waldo Emerson), Dan Crane (Nathaniel Hawthorne), and James Flanagan (Henry David Thoreau) also give strong performances that highlight the quirky sides of these literary luminaries in addition to their considerable intellect. Flanagan is particularly amusing. When these men interact with Ms. Bruneau and all that her character represents, audience members are treated to some stellar examples of actors working together in the best way possible to tell the story.

Rounding out the cast, Esther Williamson is perfectly over-the-top as the no nonsense and very traditional, gender role-obsessed Orestes Brownson, who's less than thrilled about Ms. Fuller's participation in transcendentalist discussions in locations usually off-limits to females. Amanda Forstrom and Harlan Work also have strong comedic moments in their multiple roles. Be sure to look out for Forstrom's help in translating some Italian in several scenes. Her facial expressions are classic.

Minimal set design elements (Jessica Moretti), lighting designs (Brittany Diliberto), sound designs and musical compositions (Palmer Hefferan), and choreography (Erin F. Mitchell) are crucial to reinforce the almost absurd theatricality that's already present in Cahill's script. While I found some of the staging choices to be too frenetic - and the setup of the black box theater in Capitol Hill Arts Workshop didn't always lend itself to allowing every audience member to see every moment of the action, particularly when some of it occurred near an inner wall - I will say that Mesa's production is very well-paced with every moment having a definite purpose.

Entertaining and well-acted, this one is worth your time. Tickets are only $15. There's no reason not to go.

Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

Charm plays through May 31, 2014 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop - 545 7th Street, SE in Washington, DC - but consult the Taffety Punk website for specific performance dates because it's playing in rep with Bloody Poetry. Look for Andrew White's review of that show on BroadwayWorld later this week. Tickets to Charm can be purchased online.

Pictured: Lise Bruneau as Margaret Fuller with - from L to R - James Flanagan as Henry David Thoreau, Ian Armstrong as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Dan Crane as Nathaniel Hawthorne. Photo by Marcus Kyd.


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