By Jeff Kubik
Sometimes life can feel menacing, almost predatory. The people in our lives tear us in a thousand different directions while the world we live in makes demands of us we can’t hope to fulfil. We are consumed by our consumer culture and digested in a mix of gender roles and social expectations. Little wonder Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman has become so successful.
"About December 2002 I read the novel for the first time and I thought to myself, ‘I want to make this into a play and I want to be in it,’" recalls Adrienne Smook, who plays Marian in Theatre Junction’s production of the play.
"I had no idea it had already been adapted," she adds sardonically.
First published in 1969 and adapted for the stage in 1996, Atwood’s allegorical fable follows Marian as she struggles with herself, her engagement to Peter (Danny Dorosh) and her sudden and increasing inability to eat any food. Working in a rigidly-patriarchal surveying firm, she meets Duncan (Michael Scholar), an impossibly distant graduate student whose haphazard attitude to both himself and Marian stand in stark contrast to the attitudes of her friends and Peter.
The resulting story is an exploration of everything from social expectations to eating disorders.
"[Atwood’s] writing is so layered in imagery and symbolism on top of all the characters’ motivations," says Smook. "Every actor in the rehearsal hall had a copy of the novel beside them, so whenever there was a question mark we’d go and see how Atwood described it, what Carely might have cut out, and how that contributed to the play.
"In the end, of course, we had to put it down and focus on the text of the play itself, the words the audience is going to hear."
In Carely’s adaptation, many of The Edible Woman’s most blunt allegorical elements have been removed. The city is named and the audience is assured in which era the play takes place. As a result, the production adopts a very certain sentimentality.
"The playwright has gone ahead and named Toronto, talking about draft dodgers coming up from the United States," explains Smook. "The production is a total ’60s romp, like it all happens in a lava lamp.
Yet one of the main criticisms leveled against other productions of Carely’s Edible Woman has been that it concerns itself more with the comedy of the novel than with the serious issues faced by its protagonist. Smook defends the production, pointing out it is only in the contrast between Marian and her absurd world that we see how truly desperate her situation is.
"There’s no pretending, our production is funny," she says. "It’s sexy and the set is wild. But I think it needs to be that way because that’s where you get the contrast to Marian. She is part of this crazy, crazy world. All these things are floating around her while she tries to figure out her role with her boyfriend, roommate, boss and others. Life is funny in that way though, so I think it’s good this play reflects that. [Director] Nicki Loach is so about that, she’s so great about saying ‘comedy of reality’ rather than simply playing for laughs."
And yet, realism aside, Marian and every person involved in her life are fictional characters played by real people. So, if the experience is a universal one, could a man hope to play Marian? Could he hope to imbue her with the realism on which the play and novel rest?
"I’d love to see that production," laughs Smook. "I’d love to see a gender-role reversal production of the play. About halfway through the first act Marian says ‘screw my femininity’ and in a way I have to agree. She happens to be a woman and certainly there are people who are going to see this as a feminist play about a woman finally finding her power, but it also a humanist play. It’s about finding yourself amongst the chaos of life.
"I think that’s a human condition, not necessarily a female one."
The Edible Woman runs through Sat., May 15 at the Dr. Betty Mitchell Theatre. For information call 205-2922.