By Kathleen Cahill
Directed by Pat Flick
Starring Katherine Michelle Tanner
Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Orlando FL
Sometimes the Transcendentalists remind me of the Surrealists – they make wild claims, argue them endlessly, and if you’re not clued into the subtleness of code words the argument might as well be in Cantonese. The Transcendentalists worried about God and Spirits and the rights of man and wove those ideas into popular novels. They avoided formal religion and Ouija boards and preferred to write endless books and tracts as a mediation and soporific, and while they were about a liberal as anyone could be in 1840’s America they didn’t allow girls into their club. At least not until Ralph Emerson (Eric Zivot) met Margret Fuller (Tanner) and invited her to join the editorial board of his magazine “The Dial.” Thoreau (Brandon Roberts) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (Walter Kmiec) were fine with this, but Orestes Brownson (Trent Fucci) was ready to write a strongly worded letter to The Times. Fuller loved the intellectual but sought the physical and as a rather plain and lumpy woman she was having trouble getting a man. Having sex was technically impossible without a marriage that had more paper work than a peace settlement, and while she almost made a connection with playboy Sam Ward (Avery Clark), it took a trip to the Italian revolution and an Italian count to get her pregnant.
While the Transcendentalist can be wordy, author Cahill keeps the rhetoric under control but explains Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorn are without making us actually read them. Fuller is vulnerable and earnest and full of ideas that the world wasn’t ready for, but at least she got us talking. It’s her romantic longings and her effect on these men of letters that propel this story: Emerson plays the fatherly mentor, Thoreau the orginal ambiguous environmentalist, and Ward knows he can get a better deal in the long run, but is open about the next 5 minutes. Symbolically, Fuller is drawn to water, and passes through it several times in order to complete her quest. When she achieves happiness, it’s truly beautiful.
The staging mixes classical columns and shadowy forests, reminding us that the classic temples of ancient Greece are just the trunks of sacred ash trees. We get some quickie Latin lessons helpfully explained by a Card Girl (Kelli Rose Sleigh), and when Descartes (Clark) steps on stage as a statue, he looks bronzed and patina’d and just needed some Latin chiseled into his waistcoat. Overall, we surf over the surging sexuality lurking under the dusty tomes and endless subjunctives as the Transcendentalists talked about everything but what they were talking about. We all want sex, but in those days of budding New World intellectualism the topic was buried under debating points so carefully hedged that by the time you made a rebuttal, you forget why you cared. But tonight? Tonight we have Emerson, Thoreau, and Shakespeare – how could we be any more elegant and erudite?
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