Thursday, October 14, 2010

Don’t Call Me Fat, Cleveland Public Theatre

(From left: Lissy Gulick, Kevin S. Charnas, and Lew Wallace)

First, let’s get one thing straight. I am not capable in any way of attempting to write a satire of Turkish culture, in their language, and have it ring true to people in Ankara. Hell, I couldn’t even get one sentence written. So I stand in awed respect for anyone who can try to accomplish a similar daunting task.

That said, the issue around Don’t Call Me Fat, a play by visiting Turkish playwright Ozen Yula now receiving its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre, is whether this send-up of America’s gluttonous ways works. And sadly, it doesn’t. Sure, it’s excessively long, but the problem isn’t that the play is wordy. It’s that the words consistently fail to amuse, entertain, or enlighten.

Oh, there are some momentary shocks, to be sure. Since the morbidly obese John Doe (really? John Doe?) spends all his first act time in a hospital bed, his crazy relative Jane Doe (Lissy Gulick) blisters him with a litany of f-bombs and fat-boy insults. And those can generate some nervous laughter, simply from their frontal outrageousness.

But obesity is a subject that’s been chewed over in the U.S. damn near constantly for many decades, and it’s hard to find a new way to satirize it. Playwright and director Yula attempts this in part by giving John (Kevin S. Charnas) an invisible friend—a young woman, Joanne (Faye Hargate), dressed as a Playboy bunny on a swing above him. Joanne is prone to drift off into little stories that delight corpulent John but which are less than enthralling for the audience. There are also predictable parodies of the "helping" professions such as psychologists and physicians.

Many of the jumbled references in the play seem as dated as the Playboy bunny riff. In the second act, John has been magically transformed into a lean stud, and a craven TV producer (Lew Wallace) is trying to make buff John the hot new folk hero in America. Problem is, the play tries to do this by lampooning a clunky TV show style that went out with This Is Your Life more than 50 years ago, bringing on guests from John’s past including his drunken and deluded mother. Clumsy and nearly unintelligible video clips, which are half-obscured by the set, don't help. Neither does the shaggy dog ending.

There are multiple elements in this show that might, conceivably, work together given some rigorous editing and rewriting. But the playwright is heading back to Turkey soon, so that seems unlikely.

Word has it that Yula’s visit has been edifying for those who have interacted with him. Let’s hope that is true, because the seven on-stage cast members give their all for his play. But the flabby Don’t Call Me Fat is suffering from advanced theatrical arteriosclerosis, and the prognosis isn’t promising.

Don’t Call Me Fat

Through October 30 at the Cleveland

Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue,


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