The first principle of playwriting is that you create drama by having a character pursue a particular objective. The more passionate the character's pursuit and the greater the obstacles, the more compelling the drama.
The great beauty, and the great weakness, of The Eating Disorder Talent Show—the latest late-night production by Etcetera at Live Theatre Workshop—is that the author, Christopher Johnson, is the person whose objective drives the play.
That will make more sense if you know that Christopher Johnson is also the main character of this autobiographical show. Blurring the line between reality and role-playing, Christopher-the-character examines his life-long battle with compulsive eating. He shares his story with the assistance-cum-antagonism of Sister (Danielle Dryer) and Mother (Kristi Loera).
His self-exploration sweeps Christopher freely through time. Like a swimmer caught in a current, he is tossed between memories, unable to control his journey. And although he's compelling to watch, Christopher-the-character doesn't drive the action.
The true protagonist is Johnson-the-playwright, who struggles to honestly examine his past through his writing and his performance. The result is so extraordinarily personal that it's difficult to hold this play up to critical scrutiny.
On the one hand, it's a funny and raw expression of a man's battles with mental health, addiction, body image, abuse, poverty and personal identity. If you have struggled with any of these issues (and who hasn't?), then you will find resonance with Johnson's story of survival.
On the other hand, if Johnson could be distanced from the play (both physically and emotionally), then it would become clear that the plot meanders. Beyond the gut-level impact of its personal confessions, the play lacks the structure necessary to be emotionally satisfying.
And the confessions are, at times, too uncomfortably personal.
Let me indulge in a metaphor for a moment: Nothing can disengage an audience from a play faster than naked actors onstage. You may stare, or look away, or wonder if the nudity makes them uncomfortable. Whatever your thoughts, you're no longer watching a play. You're watching people without their pants on.
Nobody strips down physically in this play, but its emotional nakedness is as startling as raw flesh. Halfway through, Christopher argues with his sister about his portrayal of the people and events of their childhood. The siblings make their peace, but Sister says she just can't bring herself to appear in Christopher's play. The fact that she says this within the play itself is a brilliantly theatrical moment of cognitive dissonance that reminds the audience that they're only seeing actors.
But then Johnson turns and begins to directly address his sister in the audience (who might—or might not—actually be in attendance). Torn with emotion, he speaks as if he's needed to say these words his whole life. This is a real person exposing something deeply personal, and it's uncomfortable to witness such a moment.
Likewise, when Mother explains that she won't attend the play because it could be humiliating, it's hard to disagree. These exchanges are a crucial part of Johnson's pursuit of the personal objectives I mentioned earlier, but they don't engage the audience in a traditional way. We are shifted from spectators to voyeurs.
But despite all of that (or, perhaps, because of all that), TEDTS is a gripping, funny and theatrical show. In the opening scene, a simple semi-circle of folding chairs onstage evokes the look of an addiction support group. This plain set foreshadows the soul-bearing to come, and the chairs are gradually removed as Christopher's protections are laid bare and stripped away.
This elegant theatrical gesture comes from director Leslie J. Miller, who also handled stage and lighting design. Miller keeps the show moving fluidly as it navigates through time, and shifts between comedy and tragedy.
Dryer, as Sister, functions as Christopher's inner critic, calling him out whenever he falls back on his defense mechanisms. Dryer makes her own character's defenses particularly clear, including a quick temper and a razor-edged wit. But she's also able to open up and expose the vulnerable tenderness inside.
Dryer also fills in as other minor characters in Christopher's life. She is mordantly funny as Christopher's foul-mouthed, homophobic father, and her bit as an uninhibited, bipolar friend gives the show an energetic lift.
Loera gives a powerful performance as Mother. Her hard life has left her quick to anger, but the louder she rages, the more fragile and vulnerable she seems. Intertwined with Christopher's pain, Mother is an object of deep compassion.
And Johnson gives a hilarious, harrowing performance as himself. There are moments when he's too self-aware, too conscious that he is acting in a play. But when he finds the right balance between artifice and naturalism, and gets caught up in his story, the audience is swept along with him.
Johnson acts with excruciating honesty, and so do Dryer and Loera. The latter two dig deep enough at times that this feels like their story as well.
The Eating Disorder Talent Show opens the lid on a lifetime of personal demons. It's one man's pursuit of wholeness in the face of obstacles that no one should have to deal with—although most of us do, to some extent. The play is far from perfect, but it's utterly, and endearingly, human.