Weighty matters

Grab a ringside seat for one woman's bout against her inner critic
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  February 26, 2014


OPEN WIDE Writer and performer Bess Welden bares it all (almost) in her one-woman show.
Photo by Darren Setlow. 

“You know, the first thing you lose on a diet is your sense of humor,” quips the narrator of Big Mouth Thunder Thighs. But this show, billed as “a solo vaudeville about body, food, and the inner critic,” written and performed by Bess Welden, has both a sense of humor and a deep gravity. Welden has been developing the show since 2012, in such venues as Portland Stage Company’s Little Festival of the Unexpected and Studio Rep Series, as well as in Port-Fringe 2012. Its newest iteration includes the directing team of Jennie Hahn and Reba Short, at Mad Horse Theatre Company.

Big Mouth employs a box of chocolate’s worth of narrative forms, tropes, and tricks.  Welden’s feisty, candid narrator performs stand-up fat jokes, musical numbers, and shopping anecdotes about calculating net carbs in Aisle 9. She voices a ventriloquist’s puppet rendition of her inner critic, Skinny Bitch (designed by puppet maker Alex Adams), who berates her: “You’re delusional and you look like a hippo;” and “You know that people don’t take you seriously, don’t you?” Welden enacts multiple characters in dialogue, as when the narrator asks her husband, “Will you still love me if I get fat?”

She also attempts a series of “Death-Defying Acts.” These stunts — which involve a scale and stacks of Cosmo balanced on her head — are tongue-in-cheek but sometimes nerve-wracking nonetheless, not because life is literally at risk, but because the humiliation and shame we witness are presented with such unflinching, unhurried candor. In her most harrowing Death-Defying Act, she gamely tries on an array of jeans in ascending sizes, exercising herself for the empty triumph of getting a too-small pair uncomfortably buttoned over her belly.

In this and all scenes, Welden is matter-of-fact about revealing her body in various states of undress. She does a strip-tease down to red hot pants and a bra, then dons and takes off other costume props and throws them unceremoniously into a trunk. Welden brings some nice grace notes to her performance — she covers her eyes when voicing Skinny Bitch, splashes her ringmaster riff with flourishes of arms, and even dances a little flamenco — even if some of the sketches have an immediate rim-shot effect that diffuses once the gimmick has registered, as in a torch song sung to a Hershey’s Kiss.

While the mood of the show shifts frequently, from circus-brio funny to unalloyed despair and back, its intensity is unrelenting. Welden sings a few numbers to soundtracks, but overall there is a lot of silence in the show that she doesn’t rush to relieve, and nor does she shy away from uncomfortable and even agonizing moments — description of the narrator’s layers of belly flab, or the moment when the dean of her drama school suggests she lose 10 pounds. The courageous honesty of the show is disarming.

Big Mouth ultimately functions less as social critique than personal catharsis: Welden doesn’t skewer conventional ideals of female physique and personality, as perpetuated by her narrator’s parents and grad-school dean, so much as come to a chocolate-indulging acceptance of her own body. Big Mouth is more personal than political, and finally feels like one woman’s publicly enacted ceremony of purging and self-acceptance, for which the audience serves as witness.

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