OGDEN — Margaret Fuller was one of the Concord, Massachusetts, Transcendentalists. She was editor of The Dial, a journal to which Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne contributed. She was the first female foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune. She was considered one of the best read persons in New England of her day, and her book Woman in the Ninteenth Century is still considered the first major work of American feminism. Basically, Margaret Fuller was a power house who championed the feminist cause before it was cool.
Charm presents us with a whimsical glance into Margaret Fuller’s life and relationships. It’s not really a production to watch as history: dreams and fantasies are interwoven with fact throughout the entire story. It is, however, something to attend to catch the mood of the brilliant woman it immortalizes. And if that doesn’t reel you in, it’s also a ridiculously funny and visually beautiful play.
The audience follows Margaret Fuller beginning with her introduction to our familiar transcendentalists at The Dial. In this scene, the silent Lydian (Maggie Goertzen) remains motionless aside from shattering a tea cup on the floor every time Fuller says anything out of the nineteenth century Puritanical norm (which is often). The rest of the production follows a similar course: jokes are abundant, and they often carry deeper meaning without that meaning ever becoming moralistic or aggressive.
The entire cast was brilliant. This was the rare production in which every actor seemed to truly become the character they represented. Having seen this script produced once before, I knew coming in that the role of Margaret Fuller would be a hard one to get right: she often addresses the audience and makes anachronistic jokes; she is cheerful when most would be discouraged; she is witty and bold about topics others avoid. In other words, the part of Margaret Fuller is delightful, but also requires marvelous execution in order to not tip off the edge of the quirky spectrum into the realm of just strange. Fortunately, Shawnee Johnson brings all the energy and charisma the role requires, and she is a pleasure to watch. Johnson’s jokes often wink at a special understanding between herself and the audience, irrespective of the rest of the characters, and amazingly every one of these situations worked and had the audience laughing.
I am still stunned that each character was able to be simultaneously cartoonish and multifaceted. Each is portrayed as a hilarious exaggeration of his historical basis, but they never feel hackneyed or overdone. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Trevor Dean) is cold and puritanical while still caring deeply for Fuller and being softened by her influence. A Pan-like Henry David Thoreau (Josh Robinson) plays with bugs and frolics by Walden Pond while still portraying introspection and emotion. Nathaniel Hawthorne (Connor Padilla) pulls up his collar to avoid being looked and frequently presenting his “Idea(s) for a story!” that are obviously influenced by his interactions with Fuller. Thanks to such a talented cast and the work of director Tracy Callahan, every joke worked, and every character was lovable.
The visual details of this production were entrancing. The stage is set on a slant so every part of it is visible to the entire audience, thus granting everyone a great view of the production’s visual puns and creative use of costumes. For example, at one point Emerson says, “I live in the winter. I have arctic ways. I will not be melted,” and a moment later, glittering snow falls on his small corner of the stage. The set (designed by Van Tinkham) and costumes (designed by Tyler Banks) are breathtaking, and the visible story they tell is just as important as the story told by the actors. For example, at one point, Fuller’s skirt expands and becomes a lighted lake, and in another scene a statue of Newton turns his head and gives Fuller some advice (in Latin, of course). Kalyn West (who also fills the roles of Anna and Sparkler) presents cue cards that translate, set the location, and always add to the fun. The lighting (designed by Austin Hull) was at times reminiscent of water on a lake or of moonlight, and the technical aspects of the production were flawless.
Kathleen Cahill’s script is one not to be missed. Her interpretation of Margaret Fuller is applicable today—indeed, many of her dating jokes hit close to home. (My very favorite joke was, “My father taught me Latin. It turns out to be a form of birth control.”) I felt her frustration every time someone went out of his way to restrict Fuller and put her in her place. And I was inspired by her strength every time she stepped right back out of “her place” and pursued her dreams undaunted. Charm provides more than a pleasant evening to forget about upon leaving the theater. In addition to being a delightful way to spend a few hours, Charm reminds the audience to live deeply and to find joy in the world around them.
Update: Charm is being remounted in preparation for the show’s invitation to the regional conference of the Kennedy Center American Theater Festival. Performances will be January 18 & 19 at 7:30 PM in the Eccles Theater on the campus of Weber State University. Tickets are $15.