Many actors say they finally get into character when they put on their costumes. An effective costume design can transport audiences to ancient Greece or to the nifty 1950s of the musical Grease. The wardrobe created for the Unicorn Theatre's production of The Whale brings to the stage the life of a 600-pound shut-in.
With the selection of Samuel D. Hunter's Drama Desk-award winning play The Whale, the Unicorn Theatre tackles a challenge — with an unprecedented main character. Charlie is an online writing teacher and the estranged father of a bitter teenage daughter. What keeps him a hostage to his apartment is that he tips the scale at 600 pounds.
Interviewed before a recent rehearsal, actor Phil Fiorini's head and hands are the only flesh showing outside of the enormous fat suit.
"I might have this on right now but it doesn't feel like I have anything on when we're doing the play," says Fiorini. "It's so raw: the emotions, the connections with people, his feelings, his openness. It's not a play I can hide in, in a suit. I usually love that, playing a character, having a funny voice, something like that. This is different."
The actor sits on a sofa next to costume designer Georgianna Buchanan. With a pinch here and a pull there, she fidgets with the lumps and bumps of the fat suit, testing what his belly will look like to audiences.
"I'm patting all of the fat flaps and rolls and sort of arranging the costume on him," says Buchanan. "He spends quite a bit of time in the play sitting on the sofa. and I want the movements to look realistic as much as we can."
There's no textbook direction for how to make an actor look so heavy. Buchanan says she created the suit from a variety of materials.
"The costume is a combination of four-way stretch spandex, fiberfill, polypropylene microbeads —a lot of them," she explains. "I think the shaping is coming along. I want it to work with the actor. And Phil is very inspiring actor, watching the design run the other day, he wasn't wearing the fat suit, and I still saw it. I saw it on him."
There are hints in the play that Charlie once lived a pretty normal life. He was married and fathered a child. He divorced and found the love of his life with a male partner. Then an unfortunate set of circumstances results in an overwhelming loss.
"There's a plot point where someone stops eating and he starts eating," says Fiorini. "I'm sure that people all of a sudden wake up and they're this. They don't know how they got there sometimes. It just happens. Sometimes we don't in our addiction or our compulsivity. You just wake up and are [like] 'How did I get here?'"
Director Sidonie Garrett sees in Charlie's predicament a very human story about how people's coping mechanisms - whether they involve drugs, alcohol, sex or food - can fail them.
"When you're a loving and caring person and crave connection and intimacy, to lose things and those people you value and love, people create ways to survive those things," Garrett says.
"Sometimes they find themselves in horrible situations, needing recovery, or sitting on your sofa unable to leave your home because you've gained 600 pounds."
Theatergoers might feel hesitant investing in a character whose size provokes intense feelings. But Fiorini says there's more to Charlie than his expansive silhouette.
"Even surrounded by people who call him names, he always looks on the positive side of a person. There's an optimism about him that I haven't known," he says. "You see this person who is considered monstrous, words like that, but there's a kindness and goodness. He believes in the goodness of people although maybe he doesn't for himself."
As visible and impressive as Charlie's fat suit may be, director Sidonie Garrett hopes audiences will ultimately take away the playwright's intent.
"You never know why a person is the way they are unless you really know them. Just looking at people on the surface and seeing that they're fat or too tall or too short or they're a different color, the judging we all do when we see something, the physical judging we all do," she says. "Maybe this play will be a reminder that you never know a person before you walk in their moccasins."
Garrett adds that, though Charlie's weight is physically ever-present, the other four traditionally proportioned characters carry around plenty of emotional baggage of their own.
The Unicorn Theatre presents The Whale, March 2 - 27, 2016 (extended through April 3), 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-531-PLAY (7529)
Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at email@example.com.