I could make this my shortest review ever and point you straight to the ticket page. But that might be less than convincing, so instead I’ll say this: even from a company known for lively, engaging, and interesting work, Charm stands out as a gem.
Written by Kathleen Cahill, Charm is the story of Margaret Fuller, a major literary and feminist writer of the 19tth century. Exploring the relationships she built with several major writers of the day – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau – Charm is never in danger of merely showcasing history. The play has an anachronistic, absurdist, magical-realist sensibility that elevates the work past a simple biography. Much of the dialogue is based on the letters and published writings of the various characters, but Cahill’s script drives them to verbalize their inner thoughts and cultural biases. What could be sub-text emerges as text, giving the characters space to frankly explore (or avoid) issues of love, agency, and sexuality.
From the moment you enter the space, it becomes clear that the Punks are planning to use their props and scenery rather than let those pieces do the heavy lifting for them. Daniel Flint has armed the company with a wealth of properties, and the actors have a field day with them: whirling stacks of books through the space, noisily arranging and rearranging stools, wielding pillows, and being rained on by everything from falling leaves to the pages of a book. Director Kelsey Mesa and choreographer Erin F. Mitchell maintain the frantic energy by keeping the actors moving through the space. The worst thing I could say about the show is that the scene transitions are long; could, but won’t, since they’re also hilarious bits of physical comedy. Even when the cast isn’t rushing about in the space, the length and narrowness of CHAW’s black box lets Mesa give her scenes a tennis-match dynamic that keeps the audience actively engaged with the play.
As Margaret Fuller, Lise Bruneau is the center about which the rest of the characters orbit. Bruneau’s Fuller is charming and direct enough that it’s easy to see both why these men are drawn to her and why they are flustered by her. Most impressively, Bruneau gives us a Margaret who is frustrated without being defeatist, making each new literary venture or personal risk-taking seem like an organic response to the situation at hand. Ian Armstrong’s Emerson seems torn from the pages of the man’s works and biographies. Far too concerned with the doings of the soul, Emerson is at turns offended and disgusted by the doings of the material world, which includes Margaret’s search for personal, physical connection. On the other hand, Emerson is also immensely supportive of Margaret as a writer. Armstrong’s performance, especially in those moments where Emerson slips and lets himself feel something, highlight one of the major points of Cahill’s script; these men weren’t hypocritical, or even conservative, just products of their time. Even a radical transcendentalist has an awareness of propriety.
Of all the characters in the play, James Flanagan’s Henry David Thoreau is closest to sharing Margaret’s sensibilities. Thoreau is fascinated by nature and the physical world, but shares her sense that society is an impediment to peoples’ happiness. Flanagan has an earnestness that makes his scenes with Bruneau feel confessional, giving an emotional grounding that keeps the play from floating off into mere comedy. And speaking of comedy…
Let’s talk about Dan Crane. As the arch-recluse Nathaniel Hawthorne, Crane is an absolute delight to watch. Where Margaret seeks to find a place for herself in society, Crane’s Hawthorne has given up on the exercise entirely. Hiding behind scene-placards, practically allergic to direct eye-contact, and constantly fumbling in conversation, Crane lends puppy-like awkwardness and immaculate comic timing to the part. But it’s not all fun and games, as Hawthorne’s personal and artistic troubles seem to run in parallel to Margaret’s. He’s a project, and the clearest example of the influence that Margaret Fuller had on her friends and colleagues. Hawthorne’s moment of triumph – an almost literal mic-drop – is like the capstone to Margaret’s journey, the play’s guarantee that Margaret’s outsized influence lives on.
Tonya Beckman is hilarious and off-putting as Emerson’s wife Lydian; Esther Williamson is gleefully pompous as Orestes Brownson; Amanda Forstrom and Harlan Work round out an incredibly strong ensemble. Much of the cast is also performing in the other half of Taffety Punk’s Rulebreaker Rep, Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry. It’s the first time the Punks have worked in rep (exciting!), but that also means each of the two shows has only half the regular number of performances.
Whatever you do, don’t let Charm slip by you.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.