Theater Review: The Whale
Playwright: Samuel D. Hunter
Director: Joanie Schultz
Scenic Design: Chelsea Warren
Costume Design: Janice Pytel
Lighting Design: Heather Gilbert
Sound Design: Thomas Dixon
Featuring: Leah Karpel, Cheryl Graeff, Will Allan, Dale Calandra, Patricia Kane
The Whale is a raw and deftly acted piece about truth and honesty.
The image of an obese man planted on a bent couch center stage as lights begin to fade into an intimate and messy apartment is one of the most jarring moments audiences can take in this theatrical season. There, in all of his monstrous imagery, sitting on an metaphorical and isolated island is a marooned man waiting to be washed out to sea, never to be thought about again. If this sounds even vaguely intriguing, its even more-so appealing when seen in person during Victory Gardens’ production of The Whale where playwright Samuel D. Hunter has constructed a moving and raw tale about a repulsive subject in a beautiful way.
Since the death of his boyfriend, morbidly obese 600 pound Charlie has confined himself to his small Idaho apartment and is eating himself to oblivion. With his health quickly failing, Charlie becomes desperate to reconnect with Ellie, his estranged and angry teenage daughter whom he has not seen in 17 years. He would give her anything: his love, his money….maybe even his life. The Whale is a tough, humorous and emotionally powerful play about how we cope with loss, honesty and how new definitions of family, friends and religion shape our lives.
One of the more central issues that can come from creating a story around one concept is that presented ideas need to have more to go on than bland character stereotypes. With Hunter’s piece, the playwright has done a great service to The Whale by laying out basic story but then seasoning characters and fringe plot points just enough to allow for intrigue and curiosity. Granted some of the relationships tend to be a bit underwhelming and the “broken relationships” trope is layed on, but they are present and give a polarizing pull toward centralized Charlie. Overall Hunter’s drama challenges convention set aside for more traditional art house films, but digs deeper at social commentary and the acceptance of overarching ideas.
As played movingly by Dale Calandra, Charlie is as stubborn and self-pitying as they come. Swimming in a fat suit portraying a 600 pound gentle giant, Calandra has created an apologetic & insular character that’s seamless and stalling in nature. Its easy to overplay such a grotesque being but Calandra tackles every fidget, struggle, wheeze to a startling nuance that sympathy becomes par for the course – audiences will root for Charlie even when he can’t say no to his own self abuse. While we at FRF aren’t ones to be very uber-awards, it will be a shame if Calandra’s performance isn’t at least recognized come awards season. Cheryl Graeff brings wonderful resentment, hypocrisy and self righteousness as the caregiver, Liz. Graeff has discovered a fine and balanced performance by giving Charlie love and a comforting-envelopment hidden with harsh undertones of cruelty and dehumanizing actions. Leah Karpel as the estranged daughter Ellie, shows how truly evil and harsh teenagers can be by giving audiences non-stop moroseness mixed with cynicism and ultra-malice; Karpel proves she has talent but doesn’t manage to fully outshine some previous credits due to a few missteps. Will Allan as the cheerful and conflicted Mormon, Elder Thomas adds timing and comic relief to the mix but doesn’t manage to break out of the small intricate boxed set which Chelsea Warren has crafted within the Victory Gardens’s space. Allan gives a consistent performance but nothing stretches beyond the character’s introduction scene.
Overall Hunter has written a sharp, witty, raw and deeply moving piece centering on the engraving of an obese man, whose emotional response is deeper for his loved ones than of himself. While there are times with which the piece does give a bit too much heavy-handed attempts at a raised and paralleled meaning (notably involving the story of “Moby Dick”), Victory Gardens has dampened The Whale to result in a very worthy & even-toned piece that audiences will take away about finding one’s true self-identity, no matter how painful that honest look can be. If the rest of this Seasons’ shows at Victory Gardens are half this good, we are all in store for something special.
Fresh Roasted Rating: Highly Recommended
For more on this review, click HERE.
Dale Calandra, Leah Karpel by Michael Brosilow
Dale Calandra, Cheryl Graeff by Michael Brosilow
~ Matt Miles, 24/7 Contributor
Producer of Fresh Roasted Films
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