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Diving into Boston Theatre with THE WHALE

I like being a Boston Theatre Artist. There, I said it. There are several theatre companies in Boston that I think are doing exciting, and engaging work: Zeitgeist, Underground Railway Theater, Company One, and SpeakEasy Stage Company are just a handful of companies that instantly spring to mind (Imaginary Beasts also deserves a shout out). I also feel like the Boston Theatre scene has grown in size and strength since I first arrived here almost 11 years ago. My 11 years have introduced me to wonderful companies and amazing artists—artists who are both friends and acquaintances, and artists I only know by reputation or from watching their work. And I seek out the work that these companies and artists create. For example, I do not know Thomas Derrah or Will LeBow, but when they were in Mamet’s Duck Variations, at the ART in 2009, I made sure I saw that production. I had seen both men in other work, and trusted that this production would be spectacular. I was not disappointed.

I include all of this preamble, because my connection to, and knowledge of, the artists and company involved had an impact on my choosing to see The Whale at SpeakEasy Stage Company. SpeakEasy Stage Company is one of my favorite theatre companies in Boston (full disclosure, I worked as an assistant to artistic director, Paul Daigneault, on SpeakEasy’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman in 2005). Their production of Five by Tenn, is one of my top five favorite shows, and had a lasting impact on me as a director. The Whale also featured the work of two acquaintances whose work I admire, Georgia Lyman and Maureen Keiller; an artist I have not met but whose work I find impressive, John Kuntz, and a director who has created work with SpeakEasy that I have enjoyed, David R. Gammons. So I knew the artists that helped bring the play to life, but really did not know much about the play itself, other than John Kuntz was in a fat suit for the play. But not knowing much about the play did not stop me from wanting to see the work of artists I admire. The fact that The Whale had its run extended didn’t hurt either. Ultimately, I knew that even if I did not find the play itself to be successful I would enjoy, or at least be engaged by, the performances.

So I went into the production as largely a blank slate, hoping to enjoy the show and looking forward to watching talented actors work. Walking into the Roberts Theater drew me into the world of the play right away. The scenic design, by Cristina Todesco, was truly engaging. It was the dilapidated, and filthy apartment of the 600 pound Charlie (played by John Kuntz). The set was a visual representation of Charlie’s slow decent into self-destruction via food. The floor was covered the remains of soda bottles, pizza boxes, fast food, and other junk food. Debris from Charlie’s meals, and, ultimately, his life. The set also worked to create a place of isolation for Charlie. By the beginning of the play, he is physically unable to leave the apartment, and is largely confined to a sofa (that has seen better days) down center. Cristina Todesco helped create the sense of isolation by giving the space very defined borders, including a ceiling. Ms. Todesco clearly had a fun this season with impressive ceiling pieces (The Flick also had an important ceiling piece).

From these initial images of the detritus of Charlie’s life, the play invited me into an exploration of self-destruction, addiction and enabling; of loss and suicide, of loneliness and the search for salvation—any salvation—and ultimately of suicide through self-destruction and addiction. All of the characters in the play drift towards self-destruction and isolation, and they all appear to be seeking a form of salvation—whether they are conscious of that search or not. Charlie is addicted to food, and is slowly killing himself by continuously and deliberately over eating. While Charlie was never a thin man, it took time for him to reach his current size. His current situation is a direct response to the death of his lover, a man who killed himself by refusing to eat. Charlie’s self-destruction is enabled by his lover’s sister, Liz (played by Georgia Lyman), who also acts as his nurse. Liz is clearly seeking to atone for her inability as family, as a nurse to have saved her brother from his own path of self-destruction through starvation. Liz needs Charlie as much as he needs her.

For me the relationship between Liz and Charlie was the most compelling of the play. It was well written, but it came to life in the interplay between Kuntz and Lyman. Lyman made Liz’s determination and desperation to keep Charlie alive, and protected, nearly palpable. While Kuntz was able to find the tenderness and love Charlie feels towards Liz. Kuntz also tapped into the very specific kind of selfishness that comes from the self-pity and over apologetic tendencies that fill Charlie. He is a kind enough man, but he is deliberately killing himself in front of the one person who truly cares for him. A woman who already lost her brother to a very similar act.

I was also drawn into the relationship between Charlie and his ex-wife Mary (played by Maureen Keiller). Mary is only in the play for one scene, but it is very explosive. Charlie and Mary separated 15 years ago, and they have not seen each other since. Charlie does check in from time to time, mostly to check on the progress of their daughter Ellie. Mary’s life has deteriorated in a similar fashion to Charlie’s. She is an alcoholic, and is also on a path of self-destruction, but one that is not driven by a desire for an end to life. Just as the work between Kuntz and Lyman, the work and clarity of relationship between Kuntz and Keiller. The pain Charlie caused Mary, as well as the pain she wants to (and sometimes does) inflict on Charlie, was clear in Keiller’s performance. Kuntz was also able to tap into Charlie’s overwhelming need for Mary’s forgiveness—which for me tapped into that same place of selfishness. Mary is not an easy role. She only has one scene, she appears near the end of the play, and her scene carries a great deal of the emotional weight the play builds throughout its progression. Keiller was heartbreaking, and riveting in the role. Mary’s extreme loss, and her brokenness were clear from the moment she set foot on stage.

The work the whole company did, on a very difficult script, was engaging and thought provoking. I was sucked into the world they created (ignoring a heavy handed, and on the nose sound design that intruded on every scene transition). And this is why I am excited to be a part of Boston Theatre. That I know these actors, that I can trust the work that I will see on stage, that I want to be a part of it, is all very comforting as an artist who has decided to make Boston home. I know I will not like everything I see, or all of the work my friends and colleagues create, but I know that the potential for transformative theatre is ever present in Boston. And I want to be a part of making it happen!

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