When my partner and I sauntered over to Washington Park on a perfect June evening to watch “Shape,” we had no idea what to expect. A feminist play about weightlifting set in Texas, performed on a gentle Ithaca green? What an idea!
Upon entering, we were greeted by warm staff who showed us to our seats, set six feet apart from other audience members. Some of the audience brought their dogs, many had wined and dined beforehand and we all had eager smiles on our maskless faces.
The play opens in a manner appropriate for Pride Month, with rapid flashes of rainbow, campy queerness hitting the audience like lightning. The scene is an over-the-top, motivational rainbow-capitalism Manhattan gym, where you’re encouraged to meet your own goals and exercise for fun. The 40-something-year-old protagonist Puppy (Annie Henk) is a sharp-minded professor who doesn’t take herself too seriously. Unfortunately, her work brings her to Texas where she joins a gym which champions a drill-sergeant approach to fitness.
In Texas, Puppy sets weightlifting goals to prove to herself and the world that she is powerful and worthy of being seen and heard. She speaks about her students not taking her seriously, so she lifts weights in her righteous anger. Annie Henk does a wonderful job of portraying Puppy’s earnestness.
As Puppy deals with relocating to the South, her hardass trainer (Will Cobbs) triggers childhood memories of her domineering father. Will Cobbs rapidly changes character between the trainer and Puppy’s dad. The two characters are quite different, yet both her trainer and her father prod Puppy and cut right into her insecurities. Cobbs’ acting is immaculate. He allows the audience to easily immerse themselves into Puppy’s mind.
As the play dips in and out of the past, a tickling, yet extremely grim character emerges… The Scale (Megan Hill). The Scale reminds us that we cannot ignore that working out is entrenched in achieving a certain body type — which comes at a psychological cost.
An especially poignant and silly scene shows a dinner with Puppy and her two friends, both of whom are professors. As they’re sipping on wine, the professors discuss whether or not they should have dessert and Puppy seems down as she decides to refrain from eating what she loves. Her trainer, too, discusses his misery in “eating clean,” yet he militantly restricts himself to maintain his body shape.
As the play nears its end, Puppy’s mother crosses the stage. The scene shows that despite her mother’s proclaimed liberalism, the way she treated Puppy regarding her appearance was toxic. The play alludes to Puppy’s struggle surrounding these issues, but since “Shape” is a comedy, it didn’t explicitly delve deeply into topics of dysphoria or disordered eating.
Sometimes, the comedy tows a dangerous line: one between normalizing unhealthy behavior by allowing the audience to laugh it off and using humor to highlight the horror of the unhealthy behavior.
“Shape” shines in its ability to depict different settings and mental spaces, via dazzling set and lighting designs. It is clear that the director, actors, writers and production crew have a genuine passion for storytelling. With only three cast members, “Shape” paints a colorful, easy story about femininity, age and body.
While the last performance of “Shape” was June 27, you can stay tuned for upcoming Kitchen Theater productions here.
Emma ‘ED’ Plowe is a senior editor on the 139th editorial board. She can be reached at [email protected].