At the Vancity Culture Lab on Thursday, February 20. Continues until February 29
BIG Sister has been described as a play about sibling relationships and body image. It's all that, but also a fascinating exploration of truth—the fluid way we remember it, the methods we use to bend it to our closest family members, and the energy we take to suppress it as a coping mechanism.
The one-woman show is something of a quest for brutal honesty, one that implicates the audience as much as it engages it. Starring Naomi Vogt and written by her younger sister Deborah, it's a sometimes painfully candid account of Naomi’s extreme weight loss as an adult. She talks not only about how she’s been treated before and after her body's reshaping, but also about her deeply conflicted feelings around that. As she puts it, “I don’t want to want to be beautiful.” At another point, she imagines her “fat self” living happily somewhere, in some alternate dimension.
The asides, the essaylike structure, and the direct addressing of the audience may remind you of two Edinburgh Fringe-grown hits: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Jacqueline Novak’s Get on Your Knees. But what sets apart the Vogts’ Vancouver Fringe-born piece is the innovative way the sisters upend the notion of a two-hander. Naomi confesses all her feelings and memories through her sibling’s perspective—interjecting her own truth when it contradicts the story being told. Deborah (who actually lives in London, England) is an ever-present force—not just via the script but through voice-overs and letters pulled out of a red mailbox.
Naomi, who has done comedy, has a casual, slightly sarcastic delivery that draws a bit from standup—that vibe underlined by a drum sting that at times punctuates her dry punch lines, and at others is used to ironic effect. One of her big strengths is the way she subtly conveys her own defence mechanisms and insecurities—she's a strong, intelligent woman who hates societal body shaming and wants to accept herself, but still faces an internal struggle to do that, well into adulthood.
BIG Sister has a stripe-y, pink-and-red new set, care of the Cultchivating the Fringe award, that Naomi quips looks “Soviet Barbie”. The audience members are her confidants, and in a few cases, they even step in to read her sister’s letters to her.
The clever script speaks directly to millennials with cultural references that touch on everything from Facebook’s truly ill-thought-out “honesty box” to Jared from Subway and Draco from Harry Potter. At times, it’s uncomfortably provocative; in the opening segment, Naomi asks us to look at her, really look at her, and speak out the first descriptive word that comes to mind—to judge her. Some of her anecdotes resonate in a heartbreaking way, such as the story of the way she gamely goes to summer camp each summer. That's first presented the way her sister remembers it (as traumatic), and then the way Naomi does: “I am who I am because no one chose me for capture the flag."
The feeling of being let in on deepest secrets is heightened by the intimate space of the Vancity Culture Lab, where Naomi can make eye contact with audience members.
In its quest for truth, BIG Sister gets the closest I’ve ever seen to the reality of most siblings’ love-hate relationships—people who are not entirely open with each other, who can speak the most cutting criticisms to our faces, but are the first to step in as protector when outsiders attack. In one anecdote, Deborah clearly is more upset with an acquaintance criticizing Naomi's pizza-eating than her sister is. “Did you call him out?” she demands. Naomi’s response, like the rest of this work, captures all the complexity of why she didn’t, mulling over the reasons such a thing would come up long after she'd lost her weight.
BIG Sister digs into why women wear shame and blame for their body, but it doesn't serve up easy answers. (Here again, it feels like the same, self-doubting feminism of Fleabag.) These are questions a lot of audiences seem interested in weighing: word has it the show is almost sold out, if not completely by now. For some, the play might feel too amorphous, unstructured, and peripatetic; for others, its structure aptly reflects the messy issues it addresses--the start of a conversation between two sisters, but also between us as audience members and the world we live in.