'The Whale' :: Putting On a Lot More Than a Few Pounds
When most people say they "have baggage," it weighs on the mind but not on the scale. Charlie's baggage weighs on the scale, and it weighs a lot.
He has a failed marriage, a daughter that detests him, a best friend that enables him and about 500 extra pounds of body weight. What he doesn't have, other than a gym membership, is a desire to go on living. Charlie is the main character in Speakeasy Stage Company's production of "The Whale", a play by Samuel D. Hunter, playing through April 5 at the BCA.
Playwrights have come up with many devices to communicate mental distress in their characters -- seeing visions, hearing music that no one else hears, ranting monologues and talking to unearthed skulls. But having a character get morbidly obese, that's unique.
In an age of legendary method actors like Robert De Niro, Christian Bale, and Matthew McConaughey, who substantially changed their weight to play a roll, patrons of Speakeasy couldn't help wonder if local-favorite, John Kuntz, the actor playing Charlie, would step up to the plate and put on a few more pounds.
"Unbelievable," said costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley, when John returned from abroad shortly before rehearsals began. "I don't know anyone who's done this!
"No one goes to Italy and loses weight. I'm sorry. Unacceptable!"
Still, she took this news in stride. She'd been preparing for John's transformation for almost a year. After all, many a mediocre actor has blustered his way through King Lear, but 500 pounds is not something that even a talented actor can fake with mere charisma and histrionics. This kind of thing takes a whole crew and this is where Gail came into the picture.
She carefully considered the options for making John gain weight. Throw a gut on Falstaff and an audience will be satisfied, but John needed a lot more weight than that. Though some options exist for the big and tall, "morbid" is a highly unusual size. Charlie needed fat arms and legs. He even needed a thick layer of back fat.
The designer had to look at her options carefully. "I was interested in finding something that was already out there," said Gail. "It's hard to invest four or five thousand dollars into a giant fat suit that you will likely never use again. And I knew it existed. Somewhere."
The designer was concerned that she would eat up her entire budget custom building a full-body fat suit specifically designed for John, and then she would have no money for other equally important things, like making his face fat. This would take detailed prosthetic make-up effects.
"I knew if we built a fat suit we would have no money for prosthetics," Gail explained, "and it was very important to me to not have our Charlie look like a pinhead in a big suit." (Her suspicions are backed-up by photographs of other actors playing the part in different productions of the play.) "[Without make-up,] I don't think an audience would understand that this is actually a character. You'd always see an actor in a fat suit."
While Gail worked on the "how" of making an average to small man weigh 650 lbs, John explored the "why" of Charlie's weight.
"The Whale" uses the novel "Moby Dick" as a metaphor to examine obsessive and self-destructive behavior among a group of people in a small Idaho town. When you look past his size, you see that Charlie is actually a really descent guy, a teacher who wants the very best for his students, even if he has to teach them through online courses from his living room couch.
But Charlie is slowly killing himself by over eating and avoiding exercise, and his best friend Liz (Georgia Lyman), who on one level wants to protect him, is also quietly enabling his unhealthy behavior. Now time has run out, Charlie probably won't live longer than a week.
Charlie hasn't spoken to his ex-wife, Mary (Maureen Keiller) for years, after leaving her for a man (a former student). And when he tries to connect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Josephine Elwood), the high school girl watches her father suffer and expire with chilling apathy. "...when you die, you won't fit through the door or the windows," says Ellie to her father. "So they'll probably have to take you out in pieces."
There is one person who says he isn't disgusted by Charlie and seems to want only the best for him, a solitary Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas (Ryan O'Connor). This young man only wants to give Charlie a message of hope and to save his eternal soul. But people in small-town Idaho have strong opinions about the Latter Day Saints. Those who aren't LDS have been Mormon, or been close to Mormons or have Mormon family members.
Not Heavy Enough
Gail was in luck. She was able to obtain the fat suit they used at Playwright's Horizons in New York. It was built for a slightly larger actor, but it would work.
Tiia Torchia ran the costume shop during the production, in the fall of 2012. She contacted a man named Sam Hill from Izquierdo Studio, one of the top craft studios in the city, to help her build this incredible fat suit. "It's built on a base," she said, "and then from there, [Sam] draped and sculpted foam -- like latex foam the stuff that mattresses are made of -- around it."
She explained the challenges of this project. "[Building a suit] that big," she said, "and then keeping it realistic -- is difficult. Also building it so it would last. And then getting it weighted so that it would look heavy, but then not making it too heavy. In the end it wound up being about 50 lbs."
"It isn't as heavy as I thought it was going to be," Gail said about the suit. "I wish it were a little heavier, because then I think the movement in it would be a little slower. John wouldn't be able to be a flexible as he is."
Torchia explained that their Charlie (Shuler Hensley) wanted this as well. "He actually asked us to make it heavier because he needed the weight." But she also explained that the suit was plenty uncomfortable. "Wearing that suit is hard, because it's hot and it's heavy... I think the actor holds the bigger role in it, in that he needs to make the suit look believable."
Torchia added, "We had to re-fluff his butt every couple of days."
It takes two people and about 45 minutes to get John in and out of this fat suit before and after the show, it was uncomfortable, plus another actor had been sweating into it for three months. But it was one hurdle Gail had out of the way. She now had to work on making John's face look fat.
Does This Religion Make Me Look Fat?
We've all heard the statistics that the number one cause of death in the United States is weight related illness, and like most Americans we confront a problem head on. We ask ourselves, what makes a person fat (our favorite answer, laziness) and how can they change their behavior?
We spend millions of dollars on gym memberships and weight loss programs, and countless magazine articles offer the solution for losing weight and building a better body. But it doesn't seem to be helping.
"I think our society is ridiculous about weight," said Gail. "If you look at 80% of the people on the street, everyone is overweight. It's becoming more normal to be big than it is to be the right weight for your size or height."
A couple of years ago I interviewed a gay man from Idaho who had gained an extraordinary amount of weight. Jon was Mormon, and like Charlie he was married to a woman. But unlike Charlie when he got a divorce the weight melted away. After Jon admitted to himself and his family that he was gay, he began swimming with a gay swim team and started a satisfying relationship with a man.
Jon said to me, "The Mormon culture breeds fat people. All the social events have 'refreshments,' punch and cookies, sugar and starch... and all libidinous desires are a sin. So people sublimate with food. If you were to drink a coffee, or even a green tea, people would look at you like you were shooting crack in a nursery school. But no one will judge you for being fat. That would be superficial."
"I had to examine my own prejudices coming into this roll, my ideas of bodies and things like that," said John. He read articles about doctors who trivialized their patients and made them less of a priority "once their weight was brought into play." In the end he concluded, "When you judge someone based on their body it's no different than judging them for being gay... or anything else."
Charlie lets this LDS missionary, Elder Thomas, into his life during this play, but he isn't looking to religion as a solution. He isn't planning to convert or confess his sins in some kind of dead bed repentance. He needs something very specific from this missionary. He needs to know what happened one Sunday in a local church house that led his partner Alan, the love of his life, to stop eating, wither away and die.
"I think Charlie is trying to kill himself with food," said Gail. "His partner starved himself and Charlie is killing himself with over consumption." The designer can empathize, because like most people in this country, weight is an issue she's dealt with intimately. "I've always struggled with my weight. Within the last three or four years I've lost 60 lbs, and I'm keeping it off. It's challenging, but I decided that I was going to maintain a level of weight that didn't make me uncomfortable... in any situation."
This is My Face
The last hurdle that Gail and the crew had to face was make-up. "The biggest hesitation for using prosthetics was the cost," she explained. "It's a specialized build. They're also expensive in terms of time. It takes two to three hours to apply the prosthetic and about 45 minutes to remove it." (With skill and practice, wardrobe supervisor Amanda Ostrow and John have reduced the application time to one hour.)
The Speakeasy Stage Company consistently brings shows of remarkably high quality to the Boston stage, but it isn't easy for them. Like all regional theatre companies that consistently bring audiences interesting and challenging work, they are a non-profit organization, and money is always a concern. So the use of prosthetics was an expense they had to examine carefully.
"That's extra money they have to find," Gail realized. "But it's a play called 'The Whale.' If you don't believe in the main character then why are they doing the play?"
Luckily the designer had some connections. "We were able to find a wonderful make-up designer named Joe Rossi," she told me. "Joe and I worked on a Showtime series. We tested it, and John was able to do everything he wanted to do with the prosthetic and the suit on, so it worked out really well."
The prosthetics are made out of latex and they have paper thin edges that blend the bulky part of the device into John's own skin. These pieces must be applied and removed very carefully so as not to tear these edges, because the company is hoping to use each piece for up to three performances.
"It's all about the transitions between the actual actor and the costume that makes him Charlie that were important to me," said Gail. "But we tried to make them seem less noticeable."
"When I put got the make-up on, and looked at myself in the mirror," John described, "I thought, 'Yeah, that's my face. That's what I look like.' It wasn't until I took it off and looked at myself that I realized I actually look different."
But Why is He Like This?
I spoke to a physician's assistant, Christie Dickmore, who works in a small town in Northern Utah, not much different from the town in Idaho where "The Whale" takes place. She said that weight was a big issue in her community. Twenty-five percent of the children she works with are overweight or obese. She is constantly developing programs to teach people to about diet and nutrition.
"Do you know anyone who's morbidly obese?" I asked. ("Morbid" is such an ugly word, but as far as I know that's the technical term, and I didn't know how else to describe it.)
She admitted that she did; a young woman in her neighborhood is over three times as big as she was in high school.
"She was my size," said Christie who is a Size 0, 5' 6" and 105 lbs. "She played soccer and was really healthy."
"What changed?" I asked.
"Her father died and he was her best friend."
"So you think that it's grief?" I asked, like Charlie's grief over losing Alan.
"It's more complicated than that," said Christie. "When she was mad at God, and she gave up on Him. But she's coming back to church now."
This wasn't unusual. When I asked these questions, many people offered solutions. The only person who didn't give me an easy answer was that man who has been inside Charlie's mind and wearing Charlie's body for the entire rehearsal and performance process.
"Of course I eat my emotions," said John, "whether it's happiness or just being lonely. But I think everyone does that. I don't think there's anything in this play that people can't relate to, even though it's an extraordinary situation."
John wasn't cagey, but there are mysteries about Charlie that he simply needs to be and really can't explain. The playwright doesn't give us simple answers either.
"I'd really love to meet the person who wrote this play," said John. "I think he's someone I'd really like to hang out with. I imagine he's incredibly kind and incredibly empathic, to create five such wounded, complicated people."
"It's going to be a hard show to watch," said Gail. "Charlie is such a tragic character you dislike him and are disgusted by him... and love him. He's so fully rounded. And the other people around him are so real, because they're not one thing or the other. They have lots of different layers and levels. They're human."