Tuesday, March 08, 2011

THEATER: Feeder: A Love Story

Photo/Jill Steinberg
Jesse (Jennifer Conley Darling) lies there in a hospital bed, sipping lime water through a straw. In flashbacks, her husband Noel (Pierre Marc-Diennet) enters through the door and lovingly feeds her; in the present, a gaping hole in the wall reminds us what it took -- after years of their food-fetish relationship -- to excavate all seven hundred and three immobile pounds of her from their apartment. Far from a condemnation of "feederism," however, Feeder sticks to the tragedy of its subtitle ("A Love Story"), and playwright James Carter succeeds in sincerely shedding (or gaining) light on a subculture most of us know nothing of. "To me," says Noel, "obesity isn't gruesome, it's gorgeous," and if the seventy minute play doesn't quite convince you of that (it's a lot to take in), their incredibly detailed pre- and post-show blogs (jessennoel.blogspot.com has posts dating back to 2008) help both to blur the lines of reality and to continue the story.

In a series of twinned monologues, we learn of Noel's earliest fantasies -- of Bertha, the fat lady in a circus coloring book -- and how, when they first met at Carmine's, Jesse was the confident, sexual master of their relationship. From Jesse, we learn how she felt overshadowed by her successful, younger sister, but found a welcoming community of people like Noel who embraced her own beauty (linkstobeauty.tumblr.com): "He loved me inside and out." Magic happens as the play turns to scene work between the two: it really is a love story, a relationship as normal as any other with the exception of its daily, page-long grocery lists. How different, ultimately, is Jesse's reliance on Noel than that of Noel's grandfather caring for his stroke-victim wife: "He bathed her . . . changed her catheter . . . read to her. It's the truest love I've ever seen." It all boils down to how you view it, and Feeder, lovingly directed by Jose Zayas (and never overboard with the sexual details or masticatory mechanics), has us accepting their relationship, even after we hear of Rosalie Bradford (who has lost over 900 pounds) and Carol Yager (who, at one point, hit 1600 pounds).

The tragedy, of course, comes from Carter's narrative, which begins with Noel vlogging about his wife's "abduction"; we'll spend the rest of the play learning what led Jesse to abandon their mutual goal of hitting the elite thousand-pound goal. These shifts are assisted by Peter Ksander's scenic design, which conflates the present and past locations into one, and Alex Koch's video and projection design, which enables us to view the live footage through a YouTube filter. One of the more effective portions of the show is a normalizing montage that a heartbroken Noel posts to the web, a "best of" clip-show of Jesse's weight gain, set to Wayne Fontana & The Mindbender's "The Game of Love."  But the purest bits of the show are those most simply communicated by the truly impressive Darling. Watch how the lovestruck twinkle in her eyes slowly begins to fade -- especially after a small fire and a creaking crane remind her of her immobility -- and collapses into a disappointed regret as she looks back on abandoning her lifestyle for a liquid diet.

The one downside to Feeder is that it's so carefully structured that it seems more documentary than drama. Because the "villain" of the piece -- diet witch Judith Angel -- never appears, and only one scene occurs after her notorious "intervention" interview, the play mostly focuses on how these two wound up living together. This somewhat submissive-dominant relationship leaves room for only one argument -- presented as a mild disagreement -- and the final scene offers a too-pat resolution. Still, so far as details and quirky romance go, Feeder will leave you more than sated, and for those who already follow this community, that may be catharsis enough.

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