By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The leading role in Kitchen Dog Theater's Charm fits actress Tina Parker like a velvet glove. But the character she plays, 19th century writer, feminist and transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, wasn't the glove-wearing sort, though she lived in glove-and-corset-wearing times.
Kathleen Cahill's immensely satisfying 90-minute biographical comedy, getting its Southwest premiere at Kitchen Dog in a solid production directed by Christopher Carlos, presents Fuller as a progressive thinker frustrated at being stuck in puritanical surroundings. The playwright tweaks and tickles the historical facts about Margaret Fuller and her real-life literary circle, which included heavyweights Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But we get the gist, learning wonderful details about Fuller and her men-friends, all whimsically filtered through modern attitudes about gender identity, sexual behavior and something as ordinary as swimming, an activity prohibited for ladies in the 1800s, lest chilly waters unravel delicate baby-making machinery.
As portrayed by Tina Parker, Fuller is part literary pioneer, part feminist revolutionary, with some of Rosie O'Donnell's sass. "High five!" says Fuller to a confused Nathaniel Hawthorne, adding as an aside, "I'm ahead of my time."
She was that, for sure. College educated and intellectually curious, Fuller fought to join the all-male literary salons of New England with her writings about the rights of women. In the play, Cahill makes cartoons of the snooty dudes around her. Thoreau (Michael Federico), gay as a dandelion, cartwheels around Walden Pond and complains of his allergy to squirrels. Puritan Emerson (Jeffrey Schmidt) is a gloomy Gus with a sexually repressed, heavily veiled wife (a very funny Cindy Beall). Hawthorne (Brian Witkowicz) suffers from paralyzing shyness and chronic writer's block.
Fuller, a ball of happy energy, casts a spell on each of the men. As told in Cahill's version, she may have been the source of inspiration for some of the greatest hits in early American lit. In one scene, Fuller's poofy blue dress transforms into Walden Pond itself, giving Thoreau some new ideas. In another she carves the pencil that fits perfectly into Hawthorne's hand. Later, her letter to Hawthorne about her romance with a sexy Italian count (Witkowicz in a dual role) sparks the outline for his story about a lusty gal and her out-of-wedlock baby—which consigns generations of American high school students to book reports on The Scarlet Letter.
To tell much more would spoil the delights and surprises of Charm. Scenic designer Clare Floyd DeVries puts the actors on staircases made of giant books and into lush green gardens of fanciful pop-up pictures. There are museums where busts of old philosophers come alive. Pages of old tomes flutter down as falling snow on a winter landscape. Lighting by Lisa Miller casts a watercolor-y softness with dreamy pinpricks of starlight here and there. Floyd Kearns-Simmons has provided original music that wafts in and out, creating complementary moods and at unobtrusive volumes.
It's a beautiful production, made even more so by the appearance of Ms. Parker, who runs Kitchen Dog as co-artistic director and is seen too rarely acting there. She throws herself into the role of Margaret Fuller with an open heart and great abandon. Put a larger-than-skinny girl in her underwear on a stage and critics call it "gutsy" and "brave." Parker, who strips down to modest 19th century scanties, is always a gutsy actress but here she's more than the sum of her ample parts. She's achingly human when, as her character, she asks, "Why was I not made beautiful instead of clever?" Which makes it even more exciting in the play, when after years of unsuccessful liaisons with the writerly types, Margaret Fuller falls into the arms of the handsome Italian lover for a heavy smooch (go, Brian Witkowicz).
Fuller was a way-paver for women journalists and for feminists who would take more than a century to fully un-corset themselves the way she imagined. What happens to her at the time in her life when she'd found the greatest happiness is the gut-wrenching conclusion to the story.
You might call this a chick-lit play, though for the men (and women) who need such things to keep the interest up there is a hot young babe (Martha Harms) in the mix. She flits about in a tiny costume during Charm as a sort of narrative "card girl" between rounds in Fuller's fight against a paternal society. She also plays the young wife of one of the literary fustians (Chris Hury).
With smart, funny writing and an equally smart, funny and, yes, brave performance by Tina Parker, Charm works like one.
"This is not a puppet show," said the talky tyke next to me at Tales from Mount Olympus, a something-with-puppet-like-objects going on in the basement space called Theatre Too. Written, designed and directed by Bruce Coleman—well, at least we know whom to blame for this flopperama.
Coleman has excerpted some Greek myths and forced a sort of black-light pageant of fabric and painted Styrofoam against a recorded narrative that has the poetry and flow of IKEA assembly instructions read aloud. The puppets themselves are flimsy assemblages with faces so flat and inexpressive they could be the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
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