Director: Danny Macchietto
Assistant Director: Celi Radillo Bowling
Stage Manager: Joshua Hahlen
Light Design: Branson White
Sound Design: Joshua Hahlen
Costume Design: Nita Cadenhead
Props: Ellen Shaddock & Stephanie Pruett
Set Design: Danny Macchietto
Charlie: Jason Leyva
Ellie: Taylor Donnelson
Elder Thomas: R. Andrew Aguilar
Liz: Amy Cave
Mary: Leslie Boren
Reviewed Performance 10/10/2015
Reviewed by Elaine Plybon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
L.I.P. Service has established a reputation for delivering high-quality artistic theatre to the DFW area. Its productions are typically like an orange – difficult to digest until you get through the tough exterior, but once through, the meat is worth the effort. The current production of The Whale begins in the same manner, but once through the outer layer, another tough layer is waiting there to be found. This is due to a script that lacks cohesion and would benefit from further development. This production, without the efforts of a talented director and cast, could have been unsatisfying.
The title of the play refers to its main character, Charlie, who is a 600 pound man. Charlie is dying of congestive heart failure. In his last days, he hopes to reconnect with his daughter. The action takes place in Charlie’s living room. His only connection to the outside world are the few people who check in on him – a nurse, a Mormon, and his daughter – and the students he teaches online.
The character is complex, with high intelligence, enormous size, and a big heart. His deep love for those around him is clearly evident. The fact that he never turns that love toward himself is also a sad truth. With frequent apologies for everything and quiet acceptance of hurtful things being said to him, the audience sees Charlie for what he is – a dying man with a low esteem and self-worth who is trying his best to make a mark and appreciate life for every moment he has left.
What got him to his current state as an obese man on a couch waiting to die is revealed in short scenes comprised of interactions between himself and his students, and himself and those who visit his apartment.
The set at Firehouse Theatre is brilliantly designed by director, Danny Macchietto. A worn-down couch sitting atop books is center stage and is where we see Charlie most of the time. The rest of the apartment is cluttered with boxes of books – Charlie is an English teacher – and thoughtlessly discarded fast food remnants and wrappers. My favorite part of the set is the backdrop. Shaped as a tombstone, the faux stone is cracked and broken, with large areas stuffed with fast food and candy wrappers. The backdrop itself began to tell the story as I sat waiting for the play to begin. I appreciated this artful mix of regalia and surrealism.
Sound design by Joshua Hahlen was a soundtrack by local music group, Telegraph Canyon, specifically two songs, “Into the Woods”, and “Reels and Wires.” The instrumentals complemented the theme of the play well.
Costume design by Nita Cadenhead was meticulous. The fat suit required to be worn by Jason Leyva in the role of Charlie was intricately designed and never appeared to be simply stuffed articles of clothing. The remainder of the cast wore clothing appropriate to their characters.
Macchietto makes his directorial debut with this production, taking on a massively complex and difficult play. He succeeded in bringing together a talented cast and crew who delivered overall strong performances with an often challenging script.
The script itself falls short of delivering on all of its promises. Early in the first act, I found myself disappointed often when the logical progression of events never came to pass while some recurring themes existed in contrived juxtaposition with the realities that could have given a deeper meaning to the action. The obvious metaphor of the whale is overemphasized with references to the Biblical Jonah and Moby Dick. To amplify the effect of the multiple metaphors, the sound crew gave the audience warnings in the form of a sound effect of waves crashing on a beach to signify that the metaphor is about to be invoked.
Leyva, who donned the fat suit for the entire performance, never faltered in his delivery of emotion and meaning, expertly introducing the audience to Charlie with each line. Depicting an ill, obese man, Leyva was convincing with every grunt and wheeze. The range of emotion in his face told stories where his body inside the suit could not. Taking on a role such as this would be daunting, but Leyva delivered.
Taylor Donnelson’s performance as Charlie’s daughter, Ellie, was disturbingly void of emotion. This is not because she didn’t portray the character well. On the contrary, the consistent delivery of lines with a voice so cold and detached could only be the result of calculated and talented choice. Her convincing performance was exactly what was needed to portray the angry teen.
R. Andrew Aguilar was an interesting choice to play Elder Thomas. The role is that of a 19 year old Morman missionary, but Aguilar appeared to be older. Despite that casting choice, his performance was strong. Aguilar used downcast eyes and nervous wringing of his hands to portray this mild and caring character who hides secrets of his own.
Amy Cave’s portrayal of Liz was troublesome. At times her delivery appeared to be mechanical. At others, her sudden raised voice and utterance of the f-bomb seemed artificial and even uncomfortable to her.
Mary Boren’s brief time on stage was nicely done. Stomping onto the stage, her strong body language and lines delivered through clenched teeth conveyed rage. Alternating between that rage and the remnants of love was nicely done by this talented actress.
Although the pacing was often slow due to so many scenes and blackouts between each, the performance was an interesting stray from the usual fare in local theatre. With a director, cast and crew who are not afraid to take on the unusual, The Whale is worth seeing for the art of it.
L.I.P. Service at the Firehouse Theatre
2535 Valley View Lane, Dallas, TX 75234
Runs through October 24
Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm. Tickets are $15. For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.jasonleyva.com or call the box office at 817.689.6461.