It sounds like homework to produce two plays about the stalwarts of your high school English curriculum — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau in one; Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron in the other — as Taffety Punk has taken on. But the lives of the former set, in Kathleen Cahill’s play “Charm,” and the latter, in Howard Brenton’s “Bloody Poetry,” are way more interesting than your history teacher ever let on.
“We don’t watch them write,” says “Charm” director Kelsey Mesa. “We watch them live.”
And what peculiar lives they led. The two plays are being performed in repertory in what Taffety Punk is calling “The Rulebreaker Rep” for the daring way these literary giants conducted themselves in the buttoned-up society of the 1800s. “Charm” concerns early feminist Margaret Fuller, who barged her way into the lives of Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau. “Bloody Poetry” is about the tangled love lives of the Shelleys, Lord Byron and Mary Shelley’s half-sister and Byron’s mistress, Claire Clairmont, when the foursome lived in Switzerland.
“All of these writers were so completely before their time, and making insane life choices,” says Lise Bruneau, director of “Bloody Poetry.”
She describes the quartet as the “hotel room desecrators of their day.”
“They were sort of traipsing around, escaping lawsuits and debt and scandal,” she says. “Their lives were so rich, but they completely eschewed all of the social norms because they were in search of this higher purpose: poetry, literature, art.”
Being a rulebreaker, however, isn’t all fun and games and opium (plenty of opium).
“Neither play makes a case for how happy going against society will make you,” Bruneau says.
“To be great means you are [on the] outside,” Mesa says. “It’s a lonely place.”
It’s a feeling that Bruneau has tapped into for her dual role — not only is she directing “Bloody Poetry,” but she’s also starring as Fuller in “Charm.” Much of the cast appears in both plays, which will be performed on alternating nights at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. And the directors intentionally cast them in contrasting roles.
“We’ve got insane Byron and studious Emerson played by the same guy [Ian Armstrong],” Bruneau says. “We’ve got outrageously passionate Shelley, played by the guy who’s withdrawn, repressed Hawthorne [Dan Crane].”
The staging is a contrast as well — “Bloody Poetry” is austere, while “Charm” employs magical realism to make donkey ears sprout from a character’s head, snow fall from an umbrella and Fuller’s dress expand and light up — “kind of ‘Alice in Wonderland-y,’ ” Mesa says.
And while the plays are far from homework, those who have done theirs will be rewarded. Both plays are drawn from all of the aforementioned authors’ works, including journals and letters. In “Bloody Poetry,” Bruneau says, Brenton even takes some liberties with poems, splicing stanzas together from disparate works. English majors in the audience are likely to recognize some lines. And history majors may find a new hero in Fuller, who has received fresh attention after Megan Marshall’s biography, “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life,” won a Pulitzer Prize last month. Aside from the obvious literary connection, one of Fuller’s transcendentalist theses inspired the “spiritual connection” that Bruneau says the two plays share.
“Margaret Fuller is always talking about seeking the other half, because the male and female sides of the soul lost each other when we fell from grace, and that’s why we’re constantly looking for a partner,” she says. “And it just seems like these plays have been looking for each other for a long time.”
Through May 31 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. 800-838-3006, www.taffetypunk.com. $15.