Shape by Kara-Lynn Vaeni; Kitchen Theatre Company, through June 27
Swoosh! The Kitchen Theatre’s world premiere of Shape opens with a flash of musical merriment as our hero Puppy relates her gym-centered tale against a glitter backdrop between two Mylar unicorns, balloons, and a sashaying male trainer in spangled hot pink spandex with a rainbow tulle peacock tail: her days at NYC’s Pink Unicorn Glitter Gym.
This splash of queer heaven is followed by an abrupt transition to the GRIT (“blood+ sweat+tears=grit”) outdoor training center, as Puppy uproots herself from her more than 47-year East coast existence to central Texas, glitter whooshed away for no pain, no gain (and a suddenly heteronormative world). Puppy’s new trainer, James, is no nonsense, against coddling, and doesn’t “do emotions.”
Playwright Kara-Lynn Vaeni, who also directs (brilliantly), has fashioned a semi-autobiographical piece that partakes of both the fish out of water and odd couple genres. The spine of the play is the shifting relationship between sassy, vocal, joke-cracking Puppy (the electric Annie Henk) and the stern, lets-set-goals James (a shape-shifting Will Cobbs). Does she get serious about her training; does he show his vulnerable side? Will she make it to lifting 250 lbs?
Her training journey is peppered with stand-up style direct address to the audience, flashbacks to being raised by her dad, and fantasy sequences, many involving her ambivalent relationship with weighing and The Scale (personified by a pertly admonishing Megan Hill.) James doubles as Dad, alternately sweet and verging on rage, and others; while Hill also portrays both East-coast friend Fern and a late appearing Mom.
The performances crackle with a heightened comic lens; but most engaging is the interplay between Cobbs and Henks, as James and Puppy. With actual weight training segments on the well-equipped stage, there is an attention to breath and effort that as audience we lean into. Henk and Cobbs have a strong rapport as actors. And Henk has an easy-going manner with the narrative. She is especially adept at switching emotional modes as the training proceeds in seriousness.
Female strength, body awareness (and shame), regional and cultural differences, aging, and gender expectations are all glanced at by Vaeni. However, the evening begins to feel like an adroitly strung together series of sketches, a lightly pro-feminist airing which still pulls its punches. The larger issue of the body-shaming of sexism gets touched on then subsumed into more standard patterns of dieting humor. Yet, the text hints at unexplored darker, trickier tangents, particularly in the sometimes traumatic experiences with Dad (that Puppy keeps re-staging with different endings) and the way that Mom makes a late intrusion.
Still, the evening abounds in humor and floats lightly due to three adroit performances and Yaeni’s sure directorial hand at pacing and comic uplift. It’s an absolute joy to be back in a live theater space, and the Kitchen’s outdoor stage in Washington Park works splendidly. Design work is top-notch, particularly the skillfully chosen scenic and costume choices of Amelia Bransky, lit dance style by Jennifer Fok. Sound Designer Chris Lane out of Atlanta (at the Kitchen: The Royale and The Children) provides the driving urban playlist.