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Sex, so often the solution, is sometimes the problem. That’s sex as in “gender” but also as in intimate acts of mutual gratification, or gratifying acts of intimacy, or whatever floats your prurient boat. In Charm, Kathleen Cahill’s erudite 2010 play about pioneering feminist Margaret Fuller’s complicated friendships with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, no one’s getting enough of it. In Bloody Poetry, Howard Brenton’s equally learned, much older literary comedy focused principally on the free-loving foursome of Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont, everyone’s having entirely too much.
For their first repertory presentation, Taffety Punk Theatre Company—lean, low-cost purveyors of fine productions of Shakespeare and less familiar fare, est. 2004—have chosen two pieces of material that complement one another well and use the same sublime complement of actors with like alacrity. (What, you don’t like words? These shows are not for you, then.) Both shows are splendid, and at $15 per ticket, taking them both in isn’t prohibitive.
In the shorter, intermissionless Charm, Lise Bruneau, in the role of Fuller, charts the Woman in the 19th Century author’s path from an innocence “educated beyond all reason”—as her pal George Parker, played by Harlan Work, puts it—to worldly experience with pluck and intelligence. (She and Work are the only two actors who don’t recur in Bloody Poetry, which Bruneau directed.)
The piece is about how Fuller’s refusal to cage her mind, as was expected of women in the 1830s and ’40s, propelled her to prominence as a glass-ceiling-shattering theorist and journalist—and also, in this account of her life at least, to remain a virgin of relatively advanced years.
“My father taught me to speak Latin,” she laments. “It turns out to be a form of birth control.” Great joke. It’s Cahill’s, not Fuller’s, director Kelsey Mesa assures me, and it’s typical of the smart way Cahill spices her bright, affectionate biography with intentionally anachronistic phrases (“birth control’), gestures (a high-five), and wardrobe items (a Speedo). As the play opens, she’s begging George to teach her to swim. He refuses to entertain her request, on the grounds that she’s a lady.
Fuller will eventually choose to marry while on assignment in Europe for the New York Tribune (she was the first female foreign correspondent for an American newspaper, among her other notable firsts), but not before she profoundly affects the fates of the three famous male scribes in her orbit. Her pal Thoreau (pronounced like “thorough,” here) is as bewildered by his sexual longings as she is by hers—he suspects he’s gay, a pickle almost as dire as being a woman back then. “I didn’t know vaginas existed until I read about them in a book on Hinduism,” he confesses. James Flanagan plays Thoreau’s fascination and fragility in just the right key.
Enchanted by the buttoned-down Ralph Waldo Emerson (Ian Armstrong, who’s more fun as that dissolute wastrel Lord Byron in Bloody Poetry, but superb in both roles), Fuller asks him if he’ll edit her papers for her. Scandal! Later, when she gives Emerson a small statue of the Venus di Milo, he drapes a cloth over its bare breasts like he was John Ashcroft himself, making Lady Justice cover her shame.
And Hawthorne? All she did for him was inspire his most famous character, Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. (She also inspired the biography Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, for which Megan Marshall won a Pulitzer Prize only last month.)
Both plays position the audience on three sides of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop’s long, narrow, black-box performance space. Jessica Moretti’s scenic elements are sparse but well-chosen. In Charm, the more busily staged of the pair, there’s a faux-marble pedestal that this lionized crew of scribes (and their targets, like Emerson’s poor wife) occasionally perch upon. They’re more alive and interesting when they’re off of it, of course. There’s an elaborate physical gag about the leaves on trees vs. the leaves in a book that mostly comes off, and a too-fussy sartorial gag about Fuller’s wedding-like dress: It has electric lights inside of it and a train beneath it that stays intentionally moored to part of the set for some reason. (Tessa Lew made the costumes, dignified and restrictive and period-appropriate, so far as I know.)
Bloody Poetry is set about two decades earlier than Charm, and on the other side of the Atlantic. Percy Bysshe Shelley (Dan Crane, who seems like he might expire from an attack of passion at any moment) has abandoned his wife back in England to live in Utopian ecstasy on the shores of Lake Geneva with his mistress, Mary, and Byron and his mistress, Mary’s stepsister. No one is especially greedy with their partners, though. “These women have drunk the milk of paradise, Sir!” Bysshe warns William Polidori (Flanagan, er, again), Byron’s seething, priggish, jealous personal physician and biographer. “No man’s spunk is safe!” In our world, Polidori was credited with publishing the first vampire story before dying at 25—younger even than Bysshe, who went at 29, or Byron, who lived to see 36—but in this one his main occupation seems to be dining out on his gossip about Byron and his lecherous cronies. In one scene, Polidori sits in a corner and watches through opera glasses while across the room Byron and Shelley argue literature.
There’s poetry, and debates about poetry, and unplanned pregnancies, and a general delight at the shock and horror of the squares back in London, as pointlessly ravenous for news of Byron & Co.’s private affairs as we are to know what went down in that elevator between Solange Knowles and Jay Z. Esther Williamson performs classical selections on the piano in the corner when she isn’t playing the tough-minded Mary Shelley, who’ll conceive her novel Frankenstein while she’s there at the lake with her friends, and pressure Bysshe into marrying her after his wife takes her own life. Tonya Beckman is Clairmont, who bore Byron’s daughter, Allegra (while continuing to sleep with Bysshe during her pregnancy), and who found her own literary ambitions frustrated. The two women learn of their mens’ dalliances, real and imagined, with other women by reading their verse. It’s more romantic than hacking their email.
Like many stories of people who indulged their appetites while still managing to exercise their talents, Bloody Poetry seems to exist to allow us voyeuristic dullards to feel enlivened by proximity to these people while still, somehow, pitying them. We envy their keen, precise powers of imagination and expression, their vast capacity for feeling. We covet their willingness to pursue every creative of carnal fancy and their refusal to bow to obligation. But Brenton assures us their lives felt as brief and watery with disappointment as ours, thank goodness. Like Polidori, we’re titillated by our brief time among the immortals. Unlike Polidori, we’re certain the artists—the ones responsible for these plays, I mean, now—deserve all the praise they’ll get.