Monday, November 9, 2009

Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig” challenges societal ideals of beauty

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

Neil LaBute’s provocative and deeply moving play “Fat Pig,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, takes an honest and necessary look at one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice in contemporary society—fat phobia—and the devastating harm it causes.

LaBute, whose work includes “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors,” employs his searing humor in “Fat Pig,” the second play in a trilogy dealing with modern culture’s obsession with physical appearance, its quest for thinness and its fixation on an idealized version of beauty.

Beginning with “The Shape of Things,” which the Aurora Theatre staged in 2003, and culminating with “Reasons to be Pretty,” “Fat Pig” centers upon Helen (Liliane Klein), an attractive, confident, intelligent, funny, sensual young woman, who also happens to be Rubenesque. She meets Tom, (played wonderfully by Jud Williford), a handsome and physically fit but otherwise unremarkable office worker, inside a crowded cafeteria at lunch. The two share a table and Tom quickly becomes enamored with Helen, as does the audience thanks to Klein’s vibrant and charismatic portrayal. Helen boldly gives Tom her business card, tells him to call her and entices him with a hopeful statement. The two begin dating, enjoy a mirthful relationship and fall in love.

However, viciousness ensues after Tom’s two superficial colleagues discover that his new girlfriend is plus size. Aside from their obvious shallowness, each holds their own motivations for being cruel. There's the grating, sexist Carter, (portrayed superbly by Peter Ruocco), who crudely assesses women’s value solely on his perceived attractiveness of their bodies and who continues to feel resentment toward his obese mother after her weight caused him public humiliation as a teenager. The attractive, non plus size Jeannie, (played with marvelous spite by Alexandra Creighton), is not just Tom’s co-worker but also his on again, off again lover. She finds out that Tom no longer wants a relationship with her in the harshest of ways, when the juvenile Carter deliberately discusses Helen in front of her. Despite this, Tom still struggles to tell Jeannie the truth and that he's now dating Helen. This gives insight into the weakness of his character, while neither Carter nor Jeannie possesses the depth to recognize Helen’s beauty or numerous personal attributes.

Instead, the pair embarks on an unrelenting campaign directed at Tom and against Helen. Their mean spirited actions include Carter coaxing Tom to show him a photograph of Helen, then grabbing it from his hand, running off with it and posting it in a mass company e-mail that mocks her weight. For the infuriated, 28-year-old Jeannie, her preoccupation with her looks and clothes only superseded by her desperation to be married, she cannot fathom why Tom would want to be with that “fat bitch” rather than her. This and a company picnic at the beach, forces Tom to make a decision: Continue the happy relationship he enjoys with Helen or succumb to societal pressures and break up with her.

To some, the title of the play and the dialogue may seem severe and feel uncomfortable. But sadly to most fat women living in society today both will be all too familiar, reminding them of similar exchanges they have personally experienced, often with complete strangers.

In “Fat Pig,” LaBute demonstrates his gift for stripping away the layers of the characters he creates and infusing them with genuine emotion. Although he does pepper the play with some tired fat stereotypes—Helen is overeating when she and Tom first meet and Carter tells of how his mom fills up four grocery carts at the store and checks the calorie content of bags of candy—at least LaBute takes on fat phobia, a prevalent, social ill that is rampant yet rarely discussed. For that, this work is highly commendable.

With brilliant direction by Barbara Damashek and powerful performances by its four-member cast, the Aurora Theatre Company’s compelling production of “Fat Pig” makes for vital theater.

“Fat Pig” through Dec. 13. Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. One hour, 45 minutes with no intermission. $15-55. (510) 843-4822,

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