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Review: 'Charm' at Kitchen Dog Theater
by Jerome Weeks 22 Nov 2010

Margaret Fuller was an American feminist pioneer. She was a literary ally of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau — she edited the literary journal of the Transcendentalist movement. Doesn’t sound like the subject for a fanciful new comedy? No? But happily, that’s what Kitchen Dog delivers.

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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.

So Fuller goes to work for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune — and covers the revolutionaries seeking to liberate Italy.

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.

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  • Nice write up. I’m a fan of Margaret Fuller.

  • Jerome Weeks

    Then you ought to see this. It’s only the second time the play’s been given a full production. It has its weaknesses — what’s up with the talking bust of Rene Descartes? — but in KD’s hands, it has such a beguiling spirit.

  • Bill Holston

    very nice review Jerome. My wife and I loved this. We’ve been subscribers for years. I thought this was Tina’s best role yet. Very thought provoking and fun play. Took a stuffy subject and made it dance.

  • Kathleen Cahill

    The playwright responds: Margaret does’t want — or get — “hot sex.” What she wants — and gets — is intimacy — on the level beyond words. She can talk to all the men in her life and they can talk to her. But intimacy is not just about talking. Intimacy has a physical/emotional/spiritual dimension. A woman who lives by words finds what she’s been looking for all along with a man she cannot talk to in words.
    “Hot sex” gives a pornographic meaning to what is the connection in life that makes us all the most happy.

  • Jerome Weeks

    Reasons one might assume that Fuller’s choice of a lover (at least as seen in ‘Charm’) is based, to a degree, on fulfilling sexual activity:

    1. We first see Fuller openly admiring her bare-chested cousin (see photo, above). She begs to go swimming with him and talks of swimming without clothing. Such desires are frustrated.
    2. Later, at different times, possible romantic/sexual partners are seen as welcoming ‘soul mates.’ But they each prove inadequate. This is because:
    Thoreau is gay.
    Emerson is married.
    Hawthorne is engaged.
    These three conditions do not preclude ‘intimacy’ — in fact, each talks privately, affectionately, encouragingly with Fuller. But these three conditions do raise various bars to sexual activity.
    3. Fuller wisecracks about strong desires being unmet (see “birth control” line, above).
    4. Fuller is ecstatic over new Italian lover; she soon gives birth, generally a sign of sexual activity.
    5. Although Fuller does extol (and long for) a complete engagement with another person (presumably mental, spiritual AND physical), she does not — correct me if I’m wrong — use the term “intimacy’ to hail what she has with Ossoli. Even if she does use it, “intimacy” was a common euphemism for sexual relations since the late 17th century (see Oxford English Dictionary). So one might be forgiven, surely, for assuming she meant sex, hot or otherwise.

    Ms. Cahill: I’m not saying, I’m right, you’re wrong. You’re the playwright. I am saying, however, that my conclusion was — shall we say? — a perfectly reasonable mistake, and that plays sometimes convey ideas their creators do not consciously intend. You may have meant for Fuller to seek an intimacy ‘beyond words,’ but given the evidence above, some of us simply thought it might be an intimacy, um, ‘beneath’ words. And what is so wrong with such an intimacy?

    Finally, I regret that you found my use of the words ‘hot sex’ so offensive. I was seeking a flippant tone. Any ‘pornographic meaning’ was not, ironically enough, the intention of this writer.