Wrestling with beauty standards

The actresses share a seamless camaraderie in the play, which is set in a mud pit and interweaved with snatches of song.
The actresses share a seamless camaraderie in the play, which is set in a mud pit and interweaved with snatches of song.PHOTO: DEREK TICKNER

Four women reflect on their pursuit of physical perfection in The Most Massive Woman Wins

REVIEW / THEATRE

THE MOST MASSIVE WOMAN WINS

Mitchell Productions Inc & Chopt Logic Productions

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

Esplanade Annexe Studio

Wednesday

Women get down and dirty with the murky issues of body image in this brutally funny play by American playwright Madeleine George, which is staged in a mud pit.

In the waiting room for liposuction surgery, four women reflect on how they wound up succumbing to the quest for physical perfection.

From fat-shaming in the playground and on the job hunt to a bulimic episode that involves eating an entire wedding cake and vomiting it up, they piece together how society might drive a woman to surgically remove parts of her body to feel good about herself.

The hilarious yet painfully resonant script by George, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist, comprises four monologues, which Australian director Jenn Havelberg breaks up.

She interweaves them with snatches of song, from ominous nursery rhymes to two original songs by performer Rachael Kirkham, including a rollicking, satirical number on racial stereotypes of beauty.

The narrative is scattershot at first, but the characters gradually coalesce - from the academic who struggles to reconcile her feminism with her need to have sex, to the self-destructive woman who cannot stop picking at her scabs.

The star of the sparse set is the mud pit, into which the chemise-clad women fling themselves with abandon.

The dirt they rub on themselves evokes the chocolate they binge on guiltily and the oversexualised sport of female mud-wrestling.

Not much actual mud-wrestling occurs and, when it does, it is not terribly convincing as the performers take great care not to sacrifice elocution for action.

But elsewhere, Havelberg uses the women's physicality to great effect, such as in a scene where the academic stutters through a defence of her thesis on eating disorders, while the other three jiggle their flesh balefully behind her as the patriarchal examiners.

The actresses share a seamless camaraderie. Each is remarkable, but if one were to pick a standout, it would be producer Tina Mitchell, with her wry portrayal of a girl who deprives herself of food while her mother exhorts her to "Glow! Glow!" before the camera.

At the end of the show, it takes the actresses a good 15 minutes to clean off the grime and return to the stage for a question-and-answer session. Would that it were so easy to scrub away the anxieties that beauty standards continue to inflict.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2018, with the headline 'Wrestling with beauty standards'. Print Edition | Subscribe