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Review: A heavy message, and some wonderful acting, in Fresno State’s memorable ‘Fat Pig’

THEATER REVIEW

In Fresno State’s brutally good production of Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig,” a good-looking man falls for an overweight woman. Then he worries the whole time what his buddies — and, by extension, the rest of his world — will think. The play is caustic, disturbing and, I suspect, way closer to the truth than most of us would like to admit. This production, directed by Brad Myers with an accomplished hand that makes the material feel both ruthless and meditative, is also distinguished by some very good acting. These students get an emotional workout, and so does the audience.

Pictured above: Jimmy Haynie, Arium Andrews and Andrew Mickelson in ‘Fat Pig.’ Photo: Fresno State

A rundown:

The storyline: Tom (played by Jimmy Haynie) meets Helen (Arium Andrews) in a neighborhood lunch place. He’s drawn to her liveliness, intellect and wit. Is the attraction physical as well? We aren’t sure at first, but as their relationship develops, there are signs this could be the real thing. Meanwhile, Tom’s co-workers — a jerky Neanderthal type named Carter (Andrew Mickelson), who ranks women based on excess poundage, and a former girlfriend of Tom’s named Jeannie (Hannah Berry), who still wants to date him — aren’t just surprised by Tom’s newest romantic attraction. They’re appalled.


Related story: IN FRESNO STATE’S ‘FAT PIG,’ PLAYWRIGHT NEIL LABUTE WEIGHS IN ON BODY IMAGE

The themes: To me, “Fat Pig” is about weakness, namely Tom’s, in the sense that all his fretting about Helen’s weight is really kind of absurd. What does it matter what anyone thinks about his girlfriend’s size? There’s a pivotal point in which Tom, who likes to think of himself as a non-superficial, enlightened person, asks Carter — who has been spewing a steady stream of sexist drivel — what he thinks of Helen. And it’s there that you grasp Tom’s true character: not what he says but how he thinks. Humans are intensely social creatures, and we put a great deal of stock in social cues from those around us. Tom isn’t strong enough to go against the grain, or, at the very least, find some new, kinder-grain friends.

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Then again, is the plot believable? It depends on how generous an attitude you have toward the human condition. I’d guess that most of us would like to think that a romantic partner’s weight would not determine his or her suitability as a mate, but LaBute asks some squirmy questions. I believe there is a strong expectation in our culture that people are a “good fit” for each other, whether in terms of temperament, age, education, humor, socioeconomic status or — let’s face it — looks. Why else was the phrase “they make a cute couple” invented? Then again, “Fat Pig” was written in 2004, and I’d (like to) think at least that workplaces today would not be so callous as the one presented here. The overtness of the pressure that Tom’s co-workers put on him feels a little much in today’s #MeToo culture. Signs of social disapproval might be sent in 2019 in less conspicuous, coded ways. But, yes, ultimately, the plot is believable.


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The acting: All four actors are very strong, with each excelling in standout moments (Berry’s anger, Michelson’s buffoonish condescension, and Haynie’s wobbly piousness), and Leslie Martin’s acting coaching certainly elevated all the performances. Andrews is particularly fine. She constructs a protective wall around her character, radiating independence and self-worth while lobbing constant, self-deprecating little bombs about her weight to keep from being hurt. But as Helen slowly opens up to Tom, you can sense the fragility within. The final scene is taut and superbly played. It left me shaking.

The production: Very nice all around, from Jeff Hunter’s minimalist settings to Elizabeth Payne’s appealing costumes, Regina Harris’ sound design and Liz Crifasi’s lighting design.

Fresno State

Hannah Berry and Jimmy Haynie in ‘Fat Pig.’

The playwright: This is where things get a little sticky for me with this show. Let’s put aside LaBute’s recent professional woes. (He was abruptly terminated as playwright-in-residence with a prominent Off Broadway theater company and had his latest play pulled from the schedule, with many observers pegging the issue as sexual harassment). Even then, it feels awkward to listen to the overweight woman character in this play speak dialogue written by a male playwright best known for his misogynistic male characters. (LaBute wrote “In the Company of Men.”) Andrews’ character shifts course in the final scene of the play in a dramatic (and, to me, a dignity-sapping) way, and while you can argue whether the change is realistic or effective, it’s jarring. It bothered me to have this particular playwright putting his words in her mouth at that moment.

The takeaway: Like most good artistic experiences, there is much to unpack in this fine, vivid production. It isn’t always an easy experience to watch. But the directing and acting is impressive. “Fat Pig” has intellectual weight, and that’s a good thing.


Show info

‘Fat Pig,’ a Fresno State production, Woods Theatre. Continues through Nov. 9. Tickets are $17 adults, $15 for Fresno State faculty, staff, alumni and military, $10 students.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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