When we first see Charlie, he gives his weight as somewhere between 500 and 600 lbs. If this were merely a few extra pounds, a few extra layers of clothing—some of them quilted or waffle-textured, perhaps—would be the solution. For localized corpulence (think Falstaff or Fezziwig), a leotard lined with foam rubber would do the trick. In Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale, however, our hero's professed goal is suicide, achieved by means of obesity-related maladies such as high blood pressure leading to congestive heart failure, making his size an important element in the play's dramatic structure.
The visual presence necessary to convey the magnitude of the threat imposed upon our would-be martyr is a challenge, even for actor and plus-size model Dale Calandra. Not only must his character's gargantuan physique be believable in every detail, but he must be ambulatory within its confines—albeit employing the aid of walkers and wheelchairs.
Costume designer Janice Pytel shares the secret of the costume dubbed "a whole-body crinoline" by one critic.
"The costume is basically a two-piece mesh suit consisting of pants with pull-on legs and a sleeveless top that zips up the back. It has a series of pockets and pouches built into it that are designed to replicate the way fat accumulates on a human body. Since it does this differently on different people, we chose a look that concentrated the extra flesh on the lower half of Charlie's body, with no padding on his arms or shoulders, and only minimal padding on his back."
What exactly is he padded with? "The stuffing is a combination of polyester beads, which provide the proper weight and sagging action when he stands or sits, and fiber-fill pillows, along with some loose fiber-fill. I worked closely with Kate Murphy at Chicago Custom Costumes, who engineered it based on my designs."
How much does the costume weigh and how long did it take Dale to become accustomed to moving in it? "The suit weighs about fifty pounds. We conducted numerous fittings before the start of rehearsals, so it was completed by the time they got onstage. Rehearsals typically last longer than actual performance, however, so often Dale would rehearse in just the top portion—that is, the back and belly part, as opposed to the legs and butt."
What kind of maintenance is required on the whole outfit? "The suit is completely washable, though it has to be unstuffed and the padding washed separately, then re-inserted. Dale needs about 10-15 minutes to get into the suit every night. He can't use the bathroom once he puts it on, but we took pains to make it as comfortable and cool as possible for him."
The critical praise lavished upon Hunter's bleak parable of sacrifice and redemption evidences the reality of Charlie's plight and the sympathy generated by his appearance for the nearly two intermissionless hours of the show's duration. Audiences will never look at a fat man in quite the same way again.
The Whale runs at Victory Gardens Theater through May 5.
Mary Shen Barnidge