In a 70-minute play that mixes mythology with the troubles of three modern-day women, The Skeleton Rep and company have created a world where appetite — for love, for attention, for purpose, and, of course, for food — runs so rampant, the rules of narrative storytelling no longer apply.
Lia Romeo’s “Hungry”, now playing through this weekend at The Tank in Midtown Manhattan, begins with a stripped down version of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” — a song that you could accidentally leave on repeat for half an hour, and you probably wouldn’t mind it too much. The introductory music choice is fitting because this play, running just a bit over an hour, hits you more like whatever the stage version of a music video could feel like, rather than the typical theatrical showing of a character’s journey, which is almost always some version of the Bildungsroman formula (“homecoming”).
Don’t get me wrong: “Hungry” has a beginning, middle, and end. The scenes are told in linear fashion through causality; the plot is easy to follow, and the main character’s story feels familiar almost immediately for anyone who’s ever had a difficult time fitting in during high school. But Romeo’s writing, combined with Ria T. DiLullo’s directing (and stage managing) ((and set design)) (((oh, and producing!))), frees this unique story from the usual trappings for anything that goes up in a black box theatre. Imaginativeness is not gratuitously shown off for the sake of showcasing innovation. Scenes do not always have to justify everything that came before, and they certainly don’t always have to set you up for what is about to follow. Even the immediate aftermath of certain characters’ deaths do not necessitate immense intensity or drama. To pull all of this off, a remarkable amount of trust is instilled in the audience from the cast and crew, and it pays off well. We are not here to witness how a character is changed by her surroundings for the entirety of the plot, because that’s abundantly passive. We are here to experience how a character goes from having life happen at her and to her, to becoming an actual person and changing her own story, forging her own path, and simply saying, “fuck it.”
On Wednesday evening, I took my place in the audience, sitting next to a prop toilet. In the first few minutes of the play, the protagonist Amy (Isabella Dawis) tries to throw up into that very toilet, with her best (and only) friend Bianca (Ellie Gossage) egging on her purging, looking up the most disgusting culinary concoctions that would be most potent for aspiring bulimics. Bianca has cascading curves of beach-ready, blonde hair. Amy hides her head underneath a sparkly snapback, her awkwardly chopped hair tied in pigtails. Bianca, returning from a summer in LA where she lost her virginity and most of her naiveté, is trying to get her unpopular, try-hard friend to put in even more effort into losing weight, making the dance team, and getting some action. Amy herself isn’t sure if she wants those things, but she eventually agrees to take diet pills illegally imported from Mexico, practices her dance routine to a 50 Cent song that is the point Z to her point A, and giggles along when Bianca goes into the intimate details of her lovers’ penis sizes.
Bianca might remind many audience members of Angela from American Beauty. She is not hungry for flirtation, because she already gets plenty of that. She is not hungry for love, because her father recently left her mother for a younger woman (according to Bianca, the other woman will always either be “a model or an executive assistant”), and she’s wary of falling into the seemingly inevitable depression that comes with marriage and commitment. Unlike Angela from Sam Mendes’s Oscar-winning film, Bianca may not even be hungry for actual human connection or approval, because, as she becomes more popular with the “in” crowd, she treats Amy, probably her only actual friend in the crazy world that is high school, like total dirt.
The raging appetite that fuels Bianca’s constantly upbeat attitude and meticulous attention to outfit details comes from an alarmingly insatiable need for observation. If no one’s paying attention to her, does she even exist at all? If no one (read: no guy) is texting her, ogling her, letting her suck his dick, she might as well be a fat, ugly virgin. According to Bianca, this is the worst possible thing to be. She would truly rather be dead than lonely.
I read an essay this week that immediately sprung to mind when Bianca expressed her biggest fear of being unwanted. This sentence in particular is now embedded in my mind, probably until the end of time:
Claudia Rankine wrote that loneliness is what we can’t do for each other.
Amy’s mother Katherine (Dana Jacks, appearing courtesy of Actors’ Equity) is a housewife whose high-pitched voice and shallow conversations are simply not enough to conceal the loneliness that oozes out of every step she takes. Because Amy is a girl entering her freshman year of high school with literally one friend and with absolutely no idea of the kind of person she wants to be, the likelihood of Katherine having a Gilmore Girls-esque relationship with her daughter is, at first glance, woefully close to zero. Because Amy’s father is constantly going away for business for weeks on end without so much as a check-in phone call, Katherine can be a wife to no one, just as much as she can barely be a mother to her troubled daughter.
Whereas Bianca’s very existence is only validated by men’s curiosity and teenage boys’ desire, Katherine’s hunger is a longing to take care of someone. Her loneliness comes from what she cannot do for others. Without a job, she cannot work. If she did work, who would she support with the money that she made? Who would want her to help them? Without a daughter who’ll talk to her, she cannot nurture. Without a husband to come back to her bedroom every night, there doesn’t seem to be a point to remodeling her home, which at this point only feels like one house of many in suburbia.
One night, a minotaur (Elvin James Patrick) enters Amy’s room, and a bond forms. It’s reminiscent of the relationship between Chihiro (Sen) and No-Face in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away: innocent, explorative, and mutually beneficial, even if by total accident most of the time. If you have any familiarity with mythological monsters, you know that minotaurs eat humans. Of the four characters in this show, the minotaur’s appetite is the least complicated. His hunger is actually very quite simple: meat is good, veggies are not enough. When Katherine finds the minotaur, she is finally able to feed someone — or something — that will appreciate her roast beef, rather than trying to make a meal for someone not at all interested in eating anything at the dinner table. She sees a child to be taken care of in the minotaur, and the creature is automatically happy because he’s getting to satisfy his carnivorous cravings.
But, like No-Face, the minotaur’s meal of choice proves problematic. He only succumbs to eating humans when another feeling is activated: rage. Once he gets angry, the minotaur starts to murder people at the rate of a suspected serial killer. His presence in the household was already enough to confuse Amy, but the results of his anger fuck up her life almost to the point of no return.
What, then, is Amy hungry for? She’s obviously hungry almost all of the time, but sacrifices nutrients and calories for the hopes of a slimmer body and the chance of one day getting asked out to homecoming for real. She doesn’t seem to crave human connection the way her mom so heartbreakingly does, because she’s actually quite independent for someone who is not yet old enough to have a driver’s license. She doesn’t care about boys the way Bianca obsesses over the male half of the population; in fact, Amy thinks most guys her age are the worst (she is not wrong).
The play ends when Amy satisfies her hunger for autonomy. In the final moments of the story, after a series of incredulously unfortunate events, Amy makes one definitive decision after another. She finally embraces the adolescent agency that has been brewing underneath her surface for the entire show, standing up for herself (she literally stands up and towers over everyone else — is there anything in the world more hopeful than seeing a triumphant teenager being proud of himself or herself?) and fleeing the concluding scene with her hood over her face, walking like she’s on a mission, and radiating an undeniable sense of purpose. A rebel with plenty of cause.
My favorite shows are always the ones that involve a four-person cast (see: the 2013 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and this year’s first Broadway cast of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House: Part 2). Isabella Dawis plays Amy with the determination, decency, and daring that, again, would be perfect for a Miyazaki protagonist. I always believed her as a teenage girl who doesn’t know what she wants to be, but I immediately recognized just how much of a smart actor Dawis is. Amy never comes off as bratty, even though she may be spoiled. It’s not a child or teenager’s fault for being born into middle class privilege or suburban comfort. Dawis’s character is aware that, no matter how hard she tries, sometimes she’ll inevitably fuck everything up… but, also, it can sometimes very well be that it’s not her that’s off. It could actually just be everyone else who’s still trying to figure their shit out, and she’s left waiting for them to catch up to her speed. We don’t give young people — teenage girls, especially — enough credit for being sensible when everyone else is acting silly or behaving stupidly. Amy may not know how great she is, but, as the audience, we recognize that she wasn’t meant to have an ordinary life. She’s destined for something bigger, better.
Ellie Gossage plays Bianca to a degree that’s absurd enough to make you laugh, but is always grounded in some sort of reality, however difficult it may at first feel unbelievable. Bianca says some things that are so ridiculous, you truly have to take a moment before you laugh. You’re that uncomfortable. She doesn’t understand a lot of things, but in certain aspects, she actually just totally gets it. With Gossage’s razor-sharp performance and unapologetic commitment to her character, whenever Bianca utters unexpected truths with such chutzpah, you’re left stunned. But then you think back to when you grew up way too quickly as a sixteen-year-old when you heard your mom cry because of your dad, or when you were in high school but already saw how much it must suck to have a cool job but no one to cuddle up with at night, and you thought to yourself, “I never want to end up like these adults.” You may disapprove of Bianca’s pro-ana attitude, but how many times do you look at yourself in the mirror and think to yourself, “If only…?” Bianca’s way of thinking is definitely not healthy, but it certainly is also not unfathomable.
I love that Lia Romeo wrote Katherine as not just a supporting character, but as a fully-fleshed mother with personality, even if she lacks purpose within the context of the world of the play. Dana Jacks plays Amy’s mom with such vulnerability, so much heart on her sleeve, that you feel as if she’s about to break at any moment, especially during a not unexpected but still devastating phone call. But Jacks prioritizes Katherine’s role as a mother before all else, and so of course she won’t let herself fall apart in front of Amy, even if it seems as though the world is just waiting for it. During one scene, Katherine reads a fairytale book to the minotaur, but as she leafs through the pages and learns of the princess’s outcome, she begins to unfold more and more into a woman who wonders if she can ever really have it all, or if that too is a tall tale that we as girls are constantly brainwashed into believing so that we can blindly walk into the traps of marriage, motherhood, and family commitment for life. Your heart shatters as much as Katherine’s body is about to collapse on the living room floor.
Kudos to Elvin James Patrick, who gave a simple yet nuanced performance as a half-bull, half-man creature. His endearing motions and animalistic grunts serve him well in the role of a fantastic beast, but it’s really the movement of his eyes that struck me. In every scene he’s in, Patrick succeeds in finding what’s human in his character, often coming across as more human than the other three characters in the story.
Lia Romeo’s writing and Ria T. DiLullo’s direction are generous, allowing for both the actors and the audience to play. We not only get to suspend our disbelief, we get to indulge in fantasy and make-believe! We treat ourselves to the mysterious and the mystical, and our journey into Amy’s story is fabulously highlighted by Miranda Poett’s lighting choices. We get to have a total blast with Barron B. Bass’s sound design that throws it back to the best R&B/pop hits of the mid-aughts. And, coming from someone who currently works in fashion, we get to OBSESS over Matsy Stinson’s on point, in-the-know, and impeccable outfit choices for Amy, Katherine, and Bianca especially. So much joy comes from these little details; I love that the crew knew this fact, appreciated it, and took advantage of their skills without pretension or overkill.
DiLullo told me today that “Hungry” only took six weeks to produce, with fifteen and a half rehearsals split between all the actors in total. “I am immensely grateful to The Tank for giving me free reign to push my boundaries,” she said, “And I look forward to seeing what 2018 holds.”
If New York theatre continues to be this inviting, ingenious, and subversive, then I, too, cannot wait for what the new year will bring.
Starring: Isabella Dawis as Amy, Ellie Gossage as Bianca, Elvin James Patrick as the Minotaur, and Dana Jacks appearing courtesy of AEA as Katherine.
Written by Lia Romeo. Directed, produced, stage managed, and set design by Ria T. DiLullo. Light design by Miranda Poett. Costume design by Matsy Stinson. Sound design by Barron B. Bass.
The Skeleton Rep’s production of “Hungry” will be shown at The Tank, located at 312 West 36th Street (between Eighth and Ninth Avenues).
Tickets can be purchased HERE. Each ticket is $19.62, which includes a service fee. Use the code “ HUNGRY ” — Remaining show dates and times are as follows:
Thursday, December 14th, @ 9:30pm
Friday, December 15th, @ 7:00pm
Saturday, December 16th, @ 7:00pm
Sunday, December 17th, @ 7:00pm