Brazilian butt lifts. Grapefruit diets. The mysterious fame of the Kardashians. Folks, we live in a twisted, shallow, beauty-obsessed society.
And, like, we know it already.
So in 2012, can you say anything fresh about our fixation with looks?
Halifax’s DMV Theatre Collective would like to think so.
Their production of The Ugly One, by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, playing at Lunchbox Theatre as part of the High Performance Rodeo, is a darkly comedic satire that takes an over-the-top look at beauty and its effect on success, love and happiness.
Lette (Matthew Thomas Walker) is a brilliant engineer who is baffled when his lowly assistant Karlmann (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) is assigned to replace him at a conference showcasing his new invention. His boss (Brian Heighton) has to break the news which, somehow, no one has ever told Lette before: he is unbearably ugly.
Back home, his wife Fanny (Kate Lavender) fesses up: it’s true, he’s got an excruciatingly unfortunate mug, and she never looks at his face, only his left eye. Despite her assurance that she’s grown used to it, and that she loves his personality, Lette is tormented. He turns to a plastic surgeon for help, who insists that Lette is so hideous that the only option is to give him a completely new face.
Lette, to everyone’s surprise, emerges the most beautiful man in the world. Suddenly, he’s gaining credit for his invention, and his once-indifferent wife can’t keep her hands off him — one in a long line of women, including a sexy, nipped-and-tucked 73-year-old CEO who has a creepy Oedipal relationship with her son (who’s also in love with Lette).
The fun doesn’t last long. Lette becomes cocky and overconfident, sleeping around and bragging to his wife, assured that she would never leave such a handsome husband. Soon, the surgeon realizes he can make big bucks by giving men everywhere Lette’s perfect face — suddenly Lette’s value is dropping faster than Greek bank stocks.
While critiquing the beauty myth may not be a new theme, director Pamela Halstead says the game has changed in the 21st century.
“We live in an era of made-to-order appearances,” she says. “Last year, when we were doing the show in Halifax, the big news was that the most popular new plastic surgery was to get your toes shortened. Where does it stop?”
Still, I’ll admit I walked into The Ugly One expecting a cute little piece that would get a few laughs and that would moralize on a theme that’s already been talked to death.
I was wrong. This ain’t no after-school special. It’s a surreal, surprisingly raunchy dark comedy, with a dizzying number of scene changes and a physical comedy that maintains the play’s energy throughout. The acting is witty and pushes the play’s absurdity, particularly Sobretodo Jr. as Karlmann, whose comic timing made the piece for me. By the end, I couldn’t care less if the beauty theme was cliché or not.
Besides, says Halstead, the play is really more about identity and perception. “We grow up and into our self-esteems and our sense of identity over a lifetime,” she says. “What does it do to us when that changes overnight?”
This play on identity is compounded by having multiple characters share the same name (Lette’s wife and the 72-year-old CEO are both named Fanny; both Lette’s assistant and the CEO’s socially inept son are called Karlmann). And there are no costume changes, so characters look exactly the same before and after surgery — leaving us to imagine how beautiful or hideous they might be.
Halstead adds that it’s no accident that von Mayenburg’s play is about a man. “We’re so accustomed to the idea of women doing that — we don’t even see it anymore. When it’s a man, it seems that much more ludicrous.”