By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater
Kathleen Cahill’s Charm is a contradiction unto itself – a comedy with serious undertones, a history that keeps morphing into fantasy, a 19th-century story that leaps forward into the 21st.
Cahill’s heroine, Margaret Fuller, may have been one of the most formidable figures among a whole bunch of formidable types known as the Transcendentalists. But in Cahill’s hands – and in the exhilarating performance of actress Katherine Michelle Tanner – Orlando Shakespeare Theater shows Margaret Fuller forging new meanings for a simple word like charm.
Cahill brings an oddball concept – fun – to the Transcendentalists, a bunch of guys known more for their extreme seriousness than for the possibility that Henry David Thoreau kept bugs in his pockets or that Nathaniel Hawthorne suffered from a severe case of writer’s block. But she also finds in Fuller a woman not content to live a constricted, 19th-century-womanly life, and she has made of her a heroine for our still conflicted times.
Orlando Shakespeare has been helping Cahill develop Charm since 2009, when PlayFest presented a reading and, later that year, a workshop production of the play. As directed by Patrick Flick, the full production may be sometimes a little too broadly silly, and some of the casting isn’t perfect. Yet Charm has so much going for it – a script that’s both comical and moving, a handful of vibrant performances, a gorgeous physical presence – that such drawbacks hardly matter.
Fuller, who lived from 1810 to 1850, was an unusual woman for her time – the first full-time American woman book critic, the first editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, the first woman war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, the author of the first classic feminist work. In Charm, Cahill supposes what also must have been true – that Fuller had to fight to be taken seriously in a world that expected women to mind their manners but nothing more than that.
Charm also imagines a world in which Margaret Fuller knows she’s a forerunner of something to come, a fantastical world in which statues speak and sea nymphs become saviors and the modern has an uncanny habit of showing up. Emerson (Eric Zivot) looks befuddled when she tries to high-five him, but Tanner’s Margaret is matter-of-fact: “I am ahead of my time,” she says.
Orlando Shakespeare’s designers have created a world in which fantasy can become real, where Robbin Watts’ lovely set – with its upended Greek columns, its slivers of trees and piles of books – looks like an intellectual’s paradise and where Jack Smith’s costumes, all pale gray and blue with big splashes of vivid aquamarine, embody the contrasts in Margaret’s life.
And the best of the performances in this sweet-tempered comedy also embrace those contrasts. Zivot’s dour Emerson is well aware that he’s stuffy and set in his ways; his Emerson looks downright disgusted with himself when he realizes he can’t deal with Margaret’s joy. Walter Kmiec transforms from the troubled, buttoned-up Hawthorne, for whom Margaret proves to be muse, to the rampant physicality of a very funny Italian count.
Brandon Roberts is a furtive little Thoreau (although Thoreau’s quirks sometimes come off as a little too studied). And Avery Clark, who was Darcy in Orlando Shakespeare’s recent Pride and Prejudice, is hilarious in a series of parts. As an uptight cousin, Avery’s character can’t bring himself to say the words “female anatomy” but can only gesture vaguely in Margaret’s direction; as a would-be suitor who finds himself too conservative for the role, he calls Margaret “interesting” and makes air quotes around the word.
Trent Fucci is rather colorless as Orestes Brownson, a Transcendentalist who doesn’t want a woman in his boys’ club, and Kelli Rose Sleigh seems too little-girlish to be an object of Margaret’s admiration (although Sleigh makes a terrifically goofy nymph). More unfortunately, Allison DeCaro turns Emerson’s wife Lydian into a cartoon: Lydian is supposed to be the butt of the joke, but DeCaro mugs so shamelessly throughout that you might forget the show isn’t about her.
But Tanner, who played Laura in Orlando Shakespeare’s lovely Glass Menagerie in 2008, makes a transcendent Margaret, a woman who has one leg in the present and another in the future, a woman in love with ideas and yearning to break free. Tanner’s Margaret is never forbidding, even when she informs an opponent that she never follows orders; her love of life, even 19th-century life, is contagious. In effect, Tanner encompasses the qualities that make Margaret’s male acquaintances push her away: She’s too exuberant for Emerson, too forthright for Brownson, too feminine for Thoreau.
And playwright Cahill finds the perfect metaphor to embody the desires of a woman who aches for freedom, a woman who gazes longingly at Walden Pond and eventually finds her love across the ocean. Margaret Fuller’s ocean-blue skirt becomes the sea. But that skirt – voluminous, beautiful and inviting – also becomes protection and comfort for all the women who follow Margaret Fuller into the unknown.
- What: Orlando Shakespeare Theater production of Kathleen Cahill comedy.
- Where: Goldman Theater, Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando.
- When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, through April 17.
- Running time: One hour and 35 minutes (without intermission).
- Cost: $20-$38 most performances, $15 Wednesday matinées, $20 for those under 30 April 8.
- Call: 407-447-1700 Ext. 1.
- Online: Orlandoshakes.org.