Margaret Fuller (Tina Parker) vs. Thoreau (Michael Federico), Emerson (Jeffrey Schmidt), Hawthorne (Brian Witkowicz) and Brownson (John M. Flores)
Margaret Fuller was an early American feminist. She was a literary ally of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau — she was the first editor of The Dial, the literary journal that advanced their Transcendentalist ideas. In short, she doesn’t sound like the ideal subject for a whimsical comedy. But happily, that’s what Kitchen Dog Theater delivers.
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For her play, titled Charm, writer Kathleen Cahill takes Margaret Fuller’s own free-spirited ways and applies them to literary history. Charm is an intellectual vaudeville. Fuller’s life is enacted in a comic series of what amount to fairy tales and burlesques.
We watch a lonely, frustrated Fuller try to find a job, a lover, even a political movement equal to her own desires and abilities. Fuller was plain-looking and outspoken, but she learns what many women, attractive or not, have learned: being smart and well-read can be disadvantages when it comes to attracting men, even smart men.
“My father taught me Latin,” Fuller declares in Charm. “It turns out to be a form of birth control.”
Fuller was essentially a 19th century precursor to the 20th-century firebrand, Emma Goldman: She was independent-minded when it came to women’s roles in literature, sex and politics. She was America’s first woman to make her living as a professional book critic, our first female war correspondent.
Still, she’s certainly not as famous as Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Odds are, though, you’ve already met her. Her friend Nathaniel Hawthorne saw Fuller defying accepted gender roles in the 1830s, and created the defiant, unwed Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.
In Charm, Hawthorne (Brian Witkowicz) comes off marginally better than the other literary figures who, at first, are flabbergasted by Fuller’s demands for equal treatment and sexual attention. Emerson (Jeffrey Schmidt) is brilliant and attracted to Fuller (in real life, Emerson said she made him laugh more than anyone). But he’s stuck in a loveless marriage that seems to have drained him. Thoreau (Michael Federico) is more a kindred spirit, although here, he’s almost giggly-impish in his love of bugs and trees. But he also can’t provide Fuller the full spiritual-sexual engagement she seeks: He’s gay.
It’s a tad unfair for playwright Cahill to view historic figures through a contemporary, mocking eye — although tweaking Great Men for their unenlightened treatment of women has been one of the pedestal-tipping advances of feminist analysis. For her part, Cahill manages to make her leading male characters endearingly human.
Besides, Charm is a lot of fun. Tina Parker has a blast playing Fuller. Other critics have quibbled with the play’s tone, but this is a vaudeville; scenes play like blackouts. You half-expect a juggling act. Clare Floyd DeVries’ set design signals what’s up when it comes to realism — it looks like a fanciful watercolor from a children’s storybook. And director Chris Carlos keeps Charm both sharp and goofy.
If there’s a weakness here, it’s the (perhaps unintended) implication that Fuller just needed some hot sex from an Italian lover to be happy. That was a common slur against feminists: a good tumble would make them happy and shut them up. Fuller was more than that – and so, mostly, is Kitchen Dog’s Charm, a playful and poignant tribute to an extraordinary woman.