PROVO – Neil Labute’s Fat Pig uses a simplistic “boy meets girl” plot to exploit complex issues around female bodies. After Tom, a conventionally attractive man, falls in love with a plus-size woman named Helen, he must learn how to navigate this new relationship within his public and private life. Tom’s “struggle” throughout takes a hard look at society’s perceptions and criticism of women’s bodies, and how everyone is influenced by this.
My first impression of the acting in this production was that it was overdone and insincere. Actions were quite bold and extreme for such an intimate setting. What I began to realize, however, was that the discomfort I may have been feeling was not simply odd choices, but were done purposely to make me feel this way. All of the characters in the show, with the exception of Helen, were portrayed more exaggerated and dramatic caricatures, rather that complex individuals. Helen, played by Hannah Davenport, is the only character who seems like a real person. Davenport constructs her character as kind, charming, and fun, and filled with emotional authenticity. There were times I felt she was speaking to only me in the audience. She is pleasingly and realistically seductive. About halfway into the show, Helen comes onstage in her underwear, which I thought was a fabulous choice, making the story seem much more real. As Helen, Davenport exudes a desirable confidence, and as the show went on, it was refreshing to see her at times more comfortable and secure with herself than her thin counterpoint, Jeannie, played by Emma Robinson.
Robinson played the stereotypical crazy ex-girlfriend. She is intense and ferocious, although I could tell this persona comes from a place of pain. Robinson was able to expose Jeannie’s struggle with her own self-esteem and confidence, knowing that Tom has chosen a “fat girl” over her. Jeannie was particularly effective in showing how body image is something that all types of women struggle with and how negatively society actually views overweight people.
As Tom, Tyler Fox was confusing to me. At the beginning, he plays the “nice guy” to an extreme. While he is friendly, flirtatious, and outgoing with a boyish charm, he also seems somewhat neurotic, with traits of ADHD, constantly needing to move his body. I was not sure of the motivation behind this. While these somewhat opposing personality traits can be played together in the same character, I felt Fox’s actions were so embellished that it made it hard for me to believe his character. I was able to believe that he genuinely likes Helen and is attracted to her, but anything beyond this falls flat. I did not sense love or sexual passion between Fox and Davenport. I was most struck by this in a scene where the couple is in bed together watching movies and talking. What could have been a nice moment between a new, infatuated couple left me wanting so much more that the simple sweetness shown.
Fox’s character clearly undergoes a journey throughout the play, and while I could glean this, I wish it was more pronounced. I was caught off guard by how stern and resolved Tom seems by the end of the play. However, this pronounced dichotomy perhaps makes the ending even more surprising. Tom proves that it can be very hard not to care what other people think or say. It is sad and powerful to see that even though he loves Helen and wants to be with her, he truly struggles with what other people are thinking and saying about and to him. As he puts is, “he’s just not strong enough” to date Helen. Fox’s “nice guy” persona ultimately creates an even more poignant message, showing that even “nice guys” can be superficial, easily influenced by the pressures of society.
Jesse Nepivoda does an impressive job portraying Carter, a shallow, insolent and offensive man’s man. Although Carter is an undesirable character, I appreciated how Nepivoda depicted the character’s candor. Carter represents the public lens through which society views and criticizes bodies that match the established and traditional definition of “beauty.” Nepivoda’s best moment is when he is speaking about his negative experiences and feelings he had as a child toward his overweight mother. Nepivoda does this so well that even though his brashness is almost sickening to listen to, it is told in such a genuine and relateable way that exposes cruel realities about the world. Instead of having negative feeling toward the character, I felt more disappointed with humanity. It is also poignant that while Carter discusses this, stating how it should not be that hard to simply stop eating, he is continuously shoving pieces of chocolate into his mouth.
With direction by Morag Shepherd, the use of food throughout the play was effective. For me, watching the actors chew various food items the entire course of the play become a gross distraction that I was hyper-aware of. As this became more and more intense, with partially chewed bread, lettuce, and cookies falling out of the actor’s mouths and all over the floor, I felt as though I was meant to be uncomfortable, perhaps even disgusted, highlighting how Helen was the only character in the cast I had no negative feelings towards. I also found the use of food as objects meaningful, particularly an apple representing a picture of Helen. The play’s harsh ending was utterly shocking, but it contained enormous power as it forced me to assess my thoughts about the situation and left me deeply contemplating life and the world.
Although there were things I did not love about this production, it is nonetheless significant. Interestingly, a lot of the acting or directorial choices I did not care for in the moment, have come together for me the more I think about the production. After pondering the play for a couple of days, the fact that it is still on my mind makes me consider it a success. Fat Pig is an important story that needs to be told, and I appreciate An Other Theater Company for doing so. This production shines a light on societal truths that are often brushed under the rug so that they can remain undiscussed. Conversely, the message seems to be the necessity of breaking down taboos, stigma, and judgment to build a kinder, more accepting society that does not dictate beauty or relationship standards.
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