Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: Fat Kids on Fire

Pipeline Theatre's
Remaining performances:
September 23-25 @8PM
September 26 @ 3PM
September 29 - October 2 @ 8PM

Wings Theatre
154 Christopher St.

"Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." That's the state of nature put forward by Thomas Hobbes, and it's also how Bekah Brunsetter's Fat Kids On Fire examines the world of fat camp for teenagers.


Fat Kids On Fire is a pretty solidly constructed story about a group of kids who, for various reasons, wind up in a fat camp named "New Images." It's full of a group of camp regulars who are always there, trying to grin cheerily past their sorrows.

There's Cindy (Nicole Spiezio), a very large girl named "The Mound," who everyone stays away from as possible -- partly because of her hygiene, partly because of her size, and partly because of her tendency to ramble on about her father who died in a tornado eight years before. There's Scott (John Early), an energetic wiggah abandoned for unspecified reasons by his parents, who just wants to make out. Bridger (Mike Steinmetz), the J.D. Salinger-esque loner who is rumored to have threatened to blow up a school and leers at women. And more.

Into this set group of people comes Bess (Sydney Matthews), a girl who is used to being snubbed by the popular girl at school, Claire (Andi Potamkin), and sees the camp as a chance to remake herself as someone new and worth liking. She wants to get into the pants of camp counselor Mark (Shane Zeigler) before summer is out, and maybe be Camp Princess to boot.

If you think this all sounds like the set-up to Glee, then you're not prepared for any of what's about to unfold. The tone may be light and peppy, buoyed along by high energy and jokes, but there's a deep vein of cruelty and pain that's the real center of this piece.

Take, for instance, Cindy. She could be a cipher for every "unpopular fat girl" stereotype you could level to make. And, in the hands of the wrong actress, she could be. But Nicole Spiezio keeps her eyes on the prize: the passionately tender monologues to her dead father make the audience laugh, but her pain is palpable.

In fact, in general the jokes come alongside cruelty. Each joke has sharp, sharp teeth; there's barely a joke in the show that doesn't draw someone's blood. At the center of all of this is Bess -- and Sydney does an admirable job balancing cruelty with innocence, glee with pain, and emotional hardship with the sort of energy and forward motion that keeps the play moving.

Make no mistake: this is a play not about fat, or about innocent girlish summers, but about that one word, cruelty. At one point, Nurse Joy (Blair Ross; the head of the camp) tells Bess that she doesn't understand what cruelty really means. And that's why it's worth revisiting the awkward, uncomfortable years of puberty in this play: because we really didn't understand what cruelty and pain meant back then.

What the play has the opportunity to do, and what director Peter Frechette really should have tried to do more, was to draw more heavily from Artaud's theater of cruelty. The play seems to be dying for it, but the direction feels more like a realist play; as such, the difference (the brutish cruelty at the heart of everything) doesn't get underlined as strongly as it could be. This isn't Camp, it's not High School Musical, it's not Lizzy McGuire; it's a very bitter play that looks like a peppy high school melodrama.

For instance, let's get straight to it: Artaud might have loved the use of the sound in this play. Characters are constantly talking not for the purposes of connecting, but to desperately assert their existences -- whole monologues of blather as characters desperately try to use words to overcome the distance between themselves and their friends. The sounds of voices are also key; Nicole's Cindy, if words are removed, sounds as though she's letting loose a deep moan of grief, and Sydney's nervous laugh in parts creates an apt sense of hysteria as she accelerates towards her own mistakes.

Artaud would also have approved of the cruel use of the human body in this play. No, it's not writhing and screaming the way Artaud might have directed it, it's something subtler than that. Let me show you what I mean.

Here's Claire (left) and Bess (right):

Here's Cindy (left) and Bess (right):

Bess, as the central character in the plot, is (importantly) median in weight. Being the first character we see, and being right in the middle of weight, the other character project like crazy onto her, and she projects onto herself. We see as Claire belittles her, she hides herself and feels fat. When she arrives at New Images, everyone refers to her as being the thin person. She expresses her surprise, and Nurse Joy bitingly adds: "comparatively thin."

The so-called "imperfections" of bodies are constantly being played up or played down according to the relationships between the characters. And almost always, the characters wind up using it for cruelty. At the end of the day, Bess ridicules Cindy for her weight; Claire never treats Bess with respect. To the audience, it has the tenor of madness -- and in fact it becomes madness fairly quickly in the play.

The questioning of this hierarchy only comes once. I won't spoil the whole scene, but suffice it to say that in one moment, Bess is waiting for Mark (whose hairless chest and well-sculpted body we've already been treated to before), but is instead confronted with Bridger, who for the first time discards his trench-coat, hat, and shirt:

Because of the focus on the body, the difference between his body and Mark's is clear as night and day; he speaks about the image of love only being able to exist between two young people who are still beautiful, and how as we age we drift apart towards divorce -- a bleak, cruel image of the world. Bess offers an alternative, briefly -- until Mark arrives. Then she passes judgment on his body ("Gross!") and he flees in shame.

To use the human body as a lever to shame the human soul is deeply, intensely cruel; and it speaks to the fatalism at the bottom of the piece. Note, by the way, that it is not actually necessary for any of the characters to be unattractive for their body to be used as a lever. But our own insecurities makes our body image flip to whatever the people around us seem to think.

I have in my life, personally, been accused both of anorexia and of being overweight; I've been put on a diet and had people force me to eat food. I've been told I have high cholesterol, and that my cholesterol is too low to count. And through all of that time, my weight has only ever moved by ten to fifteen pounds in either direction. Looking back, it's clear that even slight changes (five pounds) could be used cruelly and casually by the people around us. Hell, on Monday night I had a complete stranger tell me I did a crappy job shaving, and I wanted to hide my face for the evening.

The cruelest part of the play, though is that in the end, nobody seems to overcome the mistakes they make driven by their bodies; their body either collapses, or their spirit breaks. Nature proves to be nasty, brutish, and short; nobody seems to escape.

A little non-Pipeline related sidebar; the Guardian's online theater blog had a post recently called "Pecs vs. Performance" that raised a question about attractiveness in reviewing:
Most people, at some point, must have lusted after a performer when the house lights go down. But if a critic does the same, we cringe. Are we being too judgmental?
The question is, to what degree do the aesthetic looks of the actor have to do with quality of the work as a whole? At one point, the writer (Matt Trueman) says:
One might object, however, that attraction still cannot be subject to critical discussion. We can't debate about attraction; we can merely disagree. You can't change my mind about which performer I find attractive, no matter how stringent your argument. Does the impossibility of dialogue exclude it from judgment? Well, no. We'll readily admit that aesthetic judgments are subjective, and that the emotional effects of a particular production are equally immune to authority and debate. If our melancholy or amusement can be legitimate grounds for judgment, then why not our feelings of attraction?
The answer which I was planning on writing, and which this review provides a perfect springboard, is to say this: the physical qualities of the performers are not, in and of themselves, useful information. The usefulness of the information is how does it effect the play.

Suppose George Clooney were to be cast in Waiting for Godot. And suppose you just phase out and just watch his dreamy face the whole time, and don't mind that he's not a very good Estragon. Should the reviewer mention that Clooney is a hot piece of manflesh? Probably not.

But for this production, weight was clearly being leveraged as a tool of cruelty. The shape of Mark's abs versus Bridger's was clearly being leveraged as a tool of cruelty. If both of them had been the same, it would have taken away from a key moment. It was an aesthetic choice as much as the lights were.

I've used this review as an excuse to talk about the performer in criticism, and to project some Artaud onto the production. So some last points about the show: it was a delightfully solid show that could have used with some stronger direction to make sure that it's always distinct from the sort of sappy, high school coming-of-age story that it truly is not. Instead, what makes it not that story are the great performances of each one of the actors and actresses, even the ones who didn't get name-checked by me.

(Disclaimer: The FCC requires me to disclose that I got a free ticket to the show. I think it also requires me to disclose that I was given a CD with some pictures on it and a few pieces of paper, the sum total of whose value is probably immaterial but do have some value, and therefore might have swayed my judgement I suppose.

As usual, I am not required to disclose the fact that my theater company Organs of State is sharing space -- and therefore financial arrangements -- with Pipeline Theatre company; I have crushes on way too many people there, have made out with one of them although it was in a play, have given a flower to another one.

Daniel Johnsen, the artistic director, programmed our lights and ran our concessions without us having any expectations for him to do so, simply because he's a top-class guy. I share one company member with his company. My review of Shakespeare the Dead is quoted in the lobby, which in addition to the press packet appeals to my vanity as a blogger to no end. Many of their company members subscribe to this blog, which probably makes them a majority of blog readers. They also promote this blog every time I review them, making them impromptu street team members.

Of course, the FCC doesn't care about all of that, because they don't imagine that any of those links would influence me nearly as much as the $18 ticket that was waived to me in return for this review.

What a stupid, stupid system we have.)

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