Friday, November 20, 2015

Love handles: Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project explores what we talk about when we talk about body image

An overview of Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project's season
Neil LaBute specializes in comedy that makes us squirm about how easily we fall in with tribal thinking. In "Fat Pig," he is blunt from the title on about the way overweight people, particularly women, are pushed to the margins of social life among singles.

Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project, a resident company of IndyFringe Basile Theatre, opened a production of the 2004 play Thursday night that sailed confidently through the rough waters of 21st-century romance. The confidence displayed did not always deliver the insights buried in the rapid-fire dialogue, which was keyed to an intensity that seemed partly the fault of the script.

Callie Hartz directs the cast of four, who also handled the movement of set elements and props throughout the two-act play. Office, restaurant, and apartment settings were efficiently if minimally suggested; bathing suits and beach chairs did the trick for the finale, a pool party where the fate of the apparently mismatched lovers — plus-size Helen (Kait Burch) and regular-guy Tom (Josh Harrington) is driven home.

Hartz has her actors richly endowed with gestures and facial expressions that make each character vivid and a little overelaborated. I kept wondering if an expressions chart like the one below had been consulted. Besides Helen and Tom, there are Tom's office buddy Carter, a crude piece of work played by Ryan Ruckman, and Tom's spurned castoff Jeanie (Chelsea Gill), who works down the hall in accounting and is just as detail-oriented in settling her romantic accounts.

The production worked some of these hard.
The pace at which the story is told was jam-packed and unrelenting. It could have used a little more air at first, a "meet-cute" scene between Helen and Tom. LaBute's penchant for crafting characters with a gift for quick repartee, sometimes toxic or cliche though it is, has to be modulated in performance. The opening scene, which contrasted Tom's gingerly manner with Helen's self-confident frankness, needed a few "beats" as this unlikely couple gets used to each other over a quick lunch at which they happen to share a table.

LaBute is awfully fond of characters signaling "Just kidding" or "I'm serious," but I didn't sense such verbal emojis throwing the sort of low hurdles into the conversational path one might expect. Later, I also felt it hard to imagine Jeanie's violent eruption at Tom taking place in an office without attracting a crowd. Maybe we are supposed to see Tom's work station as entirely enclosed and soundproof.

This reflects something airtight in the play's construction, which implies but barely sketches a world outside these four people. The playwright focuses so fiercely on the social norms that make a liaison between a fat woman and a fit man scandalous that he finds it uninteresting to round them out (pun unavoidable). Same with the other two characters: Jeanie is fighting mad at being dumped for an overweight woman, and Carter is a busybody and a jerk upholding normal prejudices. In his case, those are grounded in the embarrassment he felt growing up as the son of a fat mother.

Some poignancy in his recollection doesn't stand a chance against the pit bulls of scorn Jeanie and Carter unleash (along with everyone else in the office, evidently) to make Tom question his choice of an unconventional girlfriend. LaBute has his agenda polished, bolted down and ready to take its course. Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project follows that course energetically.

The main recommendation I must make to those considering "Fat Pig" and pondering the issues it raises is to grab a seat along the Basile Theatre's west wall. Otherwise, you may be looking at actors' backs a lot of the time. Some of the silent responses  — the "takes" — that seemed absent to me may have been there but just not visible from a side seat. When you've got audience on three sides of the stage, you are obligated to play to three sides. That means moving actors around more than might seem natural, but finding ways to make it look natural. Otherwise, a side seat ought to be sold as "obstructed-view."