It isn’t hard to find live theater in Washington, DC. The nation’s capital is a theater town, after all – and if that’s news to you, then I might suggest a quick visit to the Internet to see what you uncover (start with DC Theater Scene, of course). What’s harder is finding great theater, and it’s harder still to find it at the right price. So it’s with some excitement that I happened upon local theater company Taffety Punk.
They impressed me first with their “bootleg Shakespeare” series in which an entire play is staged in a single day – a “hey, watch this!” approach to the Bard’s works that’s easy to admire.
The Punks’ swagger continues on with Charm, their latest contribution appearing at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. The play takes us through a series of snapshots in the life of 1840’s journalist and feminist writer Margaret Fuller (Lise Bruneau).
Herself plucky and ambitious, Margaret charges headfirst into an imaginative but unforgiving world of pompous intellectuals. As a woman, Margaret is offered no place with her male colleagues – among them Ralph Waldo Emerson (Ian Armstrong), Henry David Thoreau (James Flanagan) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (Dan Crane). That is, of course, until she manages to impress and upstage them at every turn.
In the world that playwright Kathleen Cahill creates for us, Margaret is in fact the only one who isn’t teetering on the edge of insanity. Ralph Waldo Emerson is hopelessly repressed, Nathaniel Hawthorne is entirely debilitated by shyness, and Henry David Thoreau is a budding recluse, taking to the forest to escape his homosexuality.
Phew! What a crew. And yet, despite their faults, Margaret is committed to joining the ranks of the much-hallowed intellectuals.
So in she comes, wielding her words like a wrecking ball as she confronts conventions about gender and femininity. At first the cloistered intellectuals are taken aback, but one by one their trepidation is replaced by – what else? – strong curiosity and romantic affections for Margaret (or, in Thoreau’s case, a strong fraternal love).
It’s problematic, and a little cringeworthy on its face. Margaret isn’t fit to run with the boys in their eyes until they decide they’ve fallen in love with her. How crass.
But Margaret doesn’t win them with her looks. Indeed, by her own admission she’s anything but the traditional standard of beauty. Instead, she wins them over with wit and courage (imagine that). Margaret isn’t immune to such whims herself, either, as she’s equally thrilled and titillated by the trio of male attention.
Margaret is hungry for passion and affection. Moreover she’s downright horny, and to the audience’s delight she’s tormented by three suitors who are unwilling or unable to seal the deal. What fun!
In the end, only Orestes Brownson (Esther Williamson) is immune to Margaret’s graces, while Margaret herself is forced to travel across the world to find fulfillment in her work and the romantic satisfaction she craves.
Closes May 31, 2014
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop
545 7th Street, SE
1 hour, 30 minutes
Details and Tickets
The trio of intellectuals is brilliant, each using great comedic timing to develop their characters. It would be wrong to pick a standout among them, but Dan Crane’s elusive Hawthorne provides a running gag that wins laughs from beginning to end. Tonya Beckman’s performance as Emerson’s wife, Lydian, also offers a nice accent to the work and a reminder that maybe it’s not just the men in this world who don’t quite have it all together.
But the entire spirit of the play is offered up with a wink. The players poke and prod at the fourth wall throughout, bringing the audience in on their jokes, their silliness and even the occasional prop failure (always handled with grace and a laugh). And if you aren’t convinced the players are having fun, you need only look down and see that the Punks have littered the stage with leaves, snow, feathers, manuscripts and an otherwise tremendous mess. Someone might tell them to clean their room, except we’re all too busy having a good time.
Naturally, Taffety Punk isn’t satisfied with just one play (that would be too easy), so Charm is being staged in a “Rulebreaker Rep” with Bloody Poetry. So, if you liked Charm as much as I did, you’ll have a chance to catch the players in their second work before long.
Add on top of it all the Punks’ commitment to affordable theater and Charm is a complete and total win.
As Margaret Fuller tells Emerson in the midst of the play, “you need more jokes in your life…we all need more jokes.”
Indeed we do, and Taffety Punk’s got ‘em. Plus a whole lot more.
Charm by Kathleen Cahill . Directed by Kelsey Mesa . Produced by Taffety Punk . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.