I got slightly distracted this week with that small matter of having a job, but before I completely lost touch, I had the chance to see Feeder: A Love Story by James Carter at the HERE Arts Center. Feeder, the latest from terraNOVA Collective which closed on Sunday the 26th, is a provocative tale about a shocking, strange, and thoroughly human relationship.
Jesse and Noel are married. They're madly in love, care fiercely for one another, and would do almost anything for each other. They're a typical happy couple - except for one small thing: Jesse is 703 pounds and Noel is her "feeder." The two are engaged in feederism - a relationship in which both parties derive pleasure from one person feeding the other in order to cause weight gain. As the play opens, Jesse and Noel have decided to pursue the ultimate and elite feeder goal: 1000 pounds.
Except Noel comes home one day to find nothing but a hole in the wall and a note from his wife. Jesse has left - taken away to a weight loss clinic by a talk show host for whom she used to work. While Jesse is at the clinic contemplating when and how her new life will take shape, Noel is left at home to deal with the aftermath of a life unraveled and a wife whose goals and aspirations have suddenly and inexplicably veered away from his own.
Feeder: A Love Story really succeeds in the sensitivity and sympathy with which its characters are painted. As bizarre and even grotesque as their lifestyle might seem to the audience, to outsiders, the core from which their strange choices come, their basic needs, fears, desires are familiar and universal. They want what we all want: love, sex, to care and be cared for. It's easy to become invested the dynamic of their relationship and its possible breaking apart.
And yet, as human and as genuine as Jesse and Noel are, the play never advocates for them, it never preaches. It presents a complex relationship with no easy answers - just like any relationship - and lets the audience be its own judge. I felt for Noel, for example, I really did. But at the same time, I'm not sure I liked him - or at least, his choices. As much as I understood his desires, I can't seem to reckon with how a person could do what he did to someone he loved. How could you want someone you genuinely care about to fall prey to all the attending health risks of morbid obesity? Getting off on the feeder lifestyle seems to me, in some ways, tantamount to getting off on slowly killing your partner.
And after Jesse "goes immobile," as they pursue their 1000-pound goal, Noel talks a great deal about about how rewarding it is to take care of Jesse, to be there for her every need. Feeling needed by the people you love is an intoxicating sensation, but how can you relish in the giving when you're also a part of the taking away? Later, Jesse expresses second-thoughts about what they're doing and Noel responds with reticence. "This is my life," he tells her, and I couldn't help but think, "No... it's hers."
I felt similarly vexed by Jesse's choices, although less so - perhaps because I'm a woman and identified more strongly with her, perhaps because she ultimately makes the choice to leave the lifestyle, although she doesn't regret her time with Noel. "I'm proud of what we did," she says, and takes great pains to make that point clear. The truth is they were happy together, they were in love.
The play takes place largely in vlog form: Noel records videos for his and Jesse's online following, Jesse keeps a video log for the talk show which her benefactor and former boss hosts, on which she'll eventually be a guest. The vlogging integrated well into the online/social media aspect of the show: both Jesse and Noel have websites and Twitter accounts that you can follow online. This digital component worked well for the story being told. Noel often repeats the refrain, "Everyone needs a corner of the internet, and this is ours." Without the internet, Jesse, Noel, and their unseen internet following would be isolated, silenced, left alone to wrestle with their strange and inexplicable desires. But online, they become part of a community, their identities validated and affirmed. Without the internet, this story would never have taken place, so it makes perfect sense that we should be able to follow it on the internet as well as in the theater.
Still - and perhaps it's just a question of personal taste (I've voiced this feeling before) - the strongest moments of the play came when Jesse and Noel unhook from their computers and occupy the same space together. The scenes where they speak their monologues into their respective digital devices were good, but the moments when the speak to one another were exponentially more powerful. I would have liked to have seen more of that.
Still, Feeder: A Love Story is a sweet play, a sad play, a thought-provoking play. It leaves room for speculation and contemplation. Should they be proud of what they did, as Jesse says? Would their relationship have endured, in different circumstances, beyond their feeder lifestyle? There are no easy answers.
What made me love Feeder even more, though, was the conversation with the playwright I had after the show. He spoke eagerly and passionately about "the community" of feeders, of how they had responded to the show and Jesse and Noel's blog leading up to the show. He offered interesting facts about the research into the community he had done and fascinating stories about people he had met. I loved this conversation for the same reason I loved Feeder: A Love Story. It gave a voice to an unrepresented or misunderstood facet of the human experience. It brought depth and dimension that I would have otherwise never known.