April 26-May 5, 2012
Joyce Doolittle Theatre at the Pumphouse
This is going to be tricky. That was my first thought upon receiving the press release for Urban Curvz’s production of Hunger Striking. A play about anorexia reviewed by a theatre critic who was herself anorexic for many years. Talk about entanglement. The way I saw it, I had two choices. I could approach the review with cool objectivity, leaving my own history and bias at the door. Or I could fess up to the intimacy of the story and allow personal insights on the subject to inform my review. As you can tell already, I chose the latter. It felt less contrived and supported my intention of always delivering a genuine review. But more importantly, if the playwright Kit Brennan, who herself struggled with anorexia, wanted to put out a semi-autobiographical play that addresses the genesis and journey of anorexia, who better than a kindred spirit to assess if the storytelling was authentic.
So, in a sense, I have two jobs in this review – to critique the play as a theatrical offering and to also pass judgement on the content of the play from a “been there done that” point of view. Funnily enough, my feelings on this production are the same no matter which hat I’m wearing. Hunger Striking offers up some brilliant moments and piercing ideas heartily mixed with stretches of severe disappointment and frustration.
The play is a simple construct that starts with Sarah (Jamie Konchak), a high school English teacher, telling us that her student, Katie, has just died of anorexia. The death brings up memories of Sarah’s own eating issues and we are taken back to various stages in her life to witness how her anorexia came to be, grew roots and eventually retreated (a word I will come back to).
Without a doubt, the most positive theatrical kudos I can give to this production is that while the story is told via a one woman narrative, Hunger Striking is actually a 2 person show. As Sarah does all the talking in the production, she is joined on stage throughout the play by a type of mute shadow performer (Anita Miotti) who goes from physically illustrating the narrative to interacting with Sarah in a choreographed movement cum dance sequence that punctuates the story.
This integration of text and movement is the brainchild of Director, Vanessa Sabourin, and is one of those brilliant moments I spoke of. Visually beautiful, physically demanding and perfectly executed, the movement element in the play, choreographed by Miotti, is by far the most unique and interesting thing about Hunger Striking. Whether the pair is playing the role of horse and rider to underline Sarah’s childhood fantasies, doing drills as part of a brutal exercise regime or simply reaching for each other to show pathos, the stage dance provides a perfect metaphoric pitch for the duality mindset of an anorexic – namely the feeling of powerlessness in the world combined with the complete power of self-imposed starvation.
Take away the visual dazzling however, and the script starts to fall short. Sarah’s flashbacks take us to her childhood home to show us the origins of eating disorder. We see her with a father she adores who will later lose his job and a turn a cold shoulder to his family. We watch her at eleven, horrified at getting her period for the first time and seemingly turning off the notion of femaleness as a result. We witness the tension with her older sister and a mother that factors little. What we are waiting for as we watch, is some clue as to why this girl, under these circumstances developed anorexia. The answer never really comes. Sure there are hints that the pressures Sarah was feeling led to the notion that total control was the only answer. And to be fair, Sarah herself can’t put a finger on when or how it all started. But to ask an audience to empathize with a character’s actions without providing adequate motivation under any circumstance is difficult. Add in something as complex as an eating disorder, and the audience is left unengaged and unable to relate to Sarah’s struggle.
More problematic however are the anti-narrative segments of the play. Brennan takes several sidelines in her story in the form of fantasy sequences that revolve around Sarah’s Celtic heritage and the fables her father told her. From an imaginary horse plucked out of an old Irish legend to the myth of a sibling river drowning, Brennan infuses the play with long overwrought scenes that are at best distracting and at worst dull. Each time one of these segments came up (and there are many) I slumped in my seat wishing that they would just get back to the story already. Yes I suppose somewhere in the myths there were metaphors for Sarah’s plight, but trying to stuff anorexia’s messiness into the neat literary construct of fantasy only took away from the impact of the story and again made it difficult to truly connect with the story.
Thankfully the play’s structural and script issues are offset by a remarkably strong performance from Konchak whose incredible energy and focus command attention even when the story goes off the rails. With no props save her actor-shadow and a couple of chairs, Konchak fills up the stage with her intense delivery that infuses as much life into her character as is possible under the circumstances. A joy to watch whether acting, movement-dancing or singing, Konchak shows what solid acting can bring to a less than solid play.
From an ex-anorexic compatriot point of view, I have to admit that the part they get wrong stings a lot more than the mere theatrical missteps. Anyone who has dealt with an eating disorder will have a different tale to tell and no one lands in anorexia’s lap in quite the same manner. But no matter how we arrived, if we are to depart healthfully, we all do it with the same challenge. Addressing the underlying reasons we self-punished and working through the issues so that we don’t have to use those destructive coping mechanisms any longer. It’s a long and painful process to look at and deal with your own demons, and I recognize that it doesn’t make for neat or concise storytelling. But instead of finding a way to depict that recovery process, Hunger Striking instead presents what I referred to earlier as an anorexic retreat.
The end of the play finds Sarah on the road to recovery in a completely unrealistic set of circumstances. She undergoes no real therapy or self-examination despite being hospitalized for the severity of her condition. After what seems like years of self-abuse and starvation, Sarah meets a nun at the hospital who introduces her to the history of the hunger-striking suffragettes and this somehow kick-starts her desire to get well. A final fall into a river on the hospital grounds and a rescue from Sarah’s nun friend, and pouff, she gets better. I found this ending incredibly offensive. After 90 minutes of being asked to share in Sarah’s struggle and pain, to have her drop the issue like it was no big deal belittles the disorder and makes light of the real work involved in recovery. It was a cop-out ending that Brennan as a playwright and a recovered anorexic should be ashamed of
Especially since she does have the capacity to get it crystal-clear at other times in the play. What Brennan excels at are nuggets of dialogue and small scenarios that perfectly illustrate the way an anorexic thinks and acts. The opening scene describes the now dead student Katie examining herself in the mirror as a slow and critical strip search with the eyes of a man who is beating his wife. Later in the play Sarah describes baking a chocolate chip cookie, placing it in front of her and not eating it as “winning”. But the most spine-chilling familiar moment for me was the scene where Sarah describes the anorexic’s view of the world. On the bottom heap there are the “fatties” – those that eat and don’t have the control to stop themselves. Then come the bulimics – the wanna-be anorexics that don’t have the intelligence or control to not eat. And at the top of the pyramid are the anorexics, glorified for their control and their self-discipline. This was the brutal authentic dialogue that I was hoping for. It could only come from someone that has been there and it was a moment of revelation that shined an important light on anorexia’s unhealthy skewed mindset. It was both a teaching moment and an important part of the character development in the play.
The irony that anorexics are severely hard on themselves and now, as an ex-anorexic, I find myself being predominantly hard on this production is not lost on me. I expected a lot of this play and on some levels I was rewarded. But in the areas it mattered most, Hunger Striking let me down. As a play it failed to illuminate, engage or start a conversation. As an interested party, it failed to show me sustained authenticity or reflect the truths I know to be important. The author E.B. White said that, ‘Writing is translation and the opus to be translated is yourself.” If Kit Brennan is going to translate herself in future, I hope she has the courage to not muddy it in trope and instead give real voice to the struggle that we are all interested in knowing about.
For the guys – Eating disorders are predominantly (although not exclusively) female issues and it would be great to see a play that helped you understand exactly what is going on. But this isn’t it. SKIP IT
For the girls – Many of Sarah’s problems are female issues in general and are easy to relate to, but you will be left wondering how and why her problems led to an eating disorder. Some biting insights but no real understanding despite some great staging and acting. SKIP IT
For the occasional theatre goer – The fantasy sequences will bore you and overshadow the actual storyline. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – If you could go for the direction, choreography and acting alone it would be a strong recommendation. But you have to sit through a messy narrative lacking true impact. Depends if you are willing to seek out the nuggets of gold in the dirty river bed. MAYBE SEE IT