Kathleen Cahill’s “Charm” takes a rosy view of the early American feminist Margaret Fuller, and her appealing play floats. Howard Brenton’s “Bloody Poetry” delves into the romantic visions of British figureheads Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley going to pot, and it’s an emotional slugfest.
The scrappy Taffety Punk Theatre Company is performing these dramas on alternating nights, and despite their differing tones, they feel like a matched set. Ideas fly high. Passions are hot. The men tend to bluster. The women generally pose tough, practical questions.
Brenton’s play may be better, simply because its increasingly turgid plot boils along while Cahill’s whimsical script feels more like a character study. In actress Lise Bruneau’s hands, though, Cahill’s Fuller is magnetic. Through a series of dialogues, Fuller banters with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, among others, and the subject is romance as much as philosophy and personal freedom.
“I am always alone,” Fuller murmurs at one point, even though she is practically incandescent.
The best thing about watching this performance in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, which barely seats 50 people, is being just a few feet from the wonderfully supple Bruneau. As she ripples through phases ranging from sadness to buoyant heroism, Bruneau gives you a lively portrait of Fuller’s acute mind and open heart.
Director Kelsey Mesa keeps this tale of Transcendentalists light enough to accommodate flickers of magic realism, even briefly featuring a glowing dress for Fuller. Bruneau herself directs Brenton’s stormier companion piece, with half a dozen actors taking significant roles in both shows.
Ian Armstrong, a priggish Emerson in “Charm,” surges with egotistical verbal swagger as Byron in Brenton’s play, and Dan Crane’s creatively blocked Hawthorne in “Charm” becomes the almost unbearably angst-ridden Shelley in “Bloody Poetry.” The roles are fuller in “Bloody Poetry,” again because the plot is saturated with romantic entanglements so thick and brutal that Shelley ends up slogging across Europe with two women, various children and the ghost of his suicide first wife.
“Let us play at gods and goddesses” goes one of the lines as these poets try, more recklessly than Fuller, to find freer ways to live. James Flanagan is excellent as Dr. Polidori, the envious mortal who chronicles goings-on that include how Mary Shelley (a nicely grounded Esther Williamson) first dreamed up Frankenstein. Tonya Beckman adroitly supplies funny and fragile notes as “other” women in both plays.
This bookish combo is a flagrant literary salon and a boutique event, with only nine performances slated for each play. Pontificating abounds (fair warning), yet this rep on a shoestring is a heroic act itself, as the Taffety Punk actors briefly, boldly stride into these large and still intriguing worlds.
By Kathleen Cahill. Directed by Kelsey Mesa. About 95 minutes.
By Howard Brenton. Directed by Lise Bruneau. About two hours and 10 minutes.
Set design, Jessica Moretti; costumes, Tessa Lew; lights, Brittany Diliberto; composer and sound design, Palmer Heffernan; choreography, Erin F. Mitchell. With Amanda Forstrom and Harlan Work. In rotating repertory through May 31 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Tickets $15. Call 800-838-3006 or visit taffetypunk.com.