By LINDA HERRICK
Don't go to Deb Filler's new show Filler Up feeling hungry. If you are at all peckish, one of her props is tantamount to torture.
Filler, you see, bakes Jewish challah bread on stage. By the end of her 90-minute monologue and the "ping!"of the microwave, the theatre is filled with the fragrance of steaming bread, which - thankfully - she then shares with the audience.
Filler Up is the first show the Auckland-born, Toronto-based actor has played in her old home town for some years, aside from her lighter An Evening With ... in early 1999. Her Punch Me In the Stomach was last staged here in 1994; its "whirlwind tour of Eastern European death camps" with her Auschwitz survivor dad, Sol, proving an extraordinary blend of quick-witted comedy and overwhelming horror which she has staged around the world.
Punch Me was subsequently made into a film in 1996 and received glowing reviews; it is still available on video from sources such as the National Centre for Jewish Film (www.jewishfilm.org).
Since then, Sol Filler, who forged a post-World War II life in Mt Roskill as a baker and well-loved community figure, has died. But each night on stage, as his daughter bakes that Jewish plaited bread according to his "secret recipe", Sol Filler's spirit is, figuratively speaking, sure to rise.
"The making of the bread is keeping my father alive, that's the spiritual centre," explains Filler from Sydney, where she has been performing the show at the University of Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Arts theatre.
She hastens to dispel any perception that Filler Up must be timed to the second so the ending coincides exactly with the ping of the microwave timer. "I've had bread you could bounce to the South Island. In Wellington in a workshop the oven didn't work and I signalled desperately to front of house to get me another challah. They couldn't find one so they got me a pumpernickel. The audience was very generous and pretended it was challah."
The bread is a metaphor, signalling the age-old and sometimes troubled relationship between food and family. The central character, Deb, has body image "issues" which Filler knows all too well. "In our family, it was waste not, want not. My father lost everything, survived but with a number on his arm. My mother got out of Germany in 1938 but the fireworks had begun on a lower level, so there was always the feeling of being very careful, of never wasting food. The attitude was that you had to eat everything on your plate and for me those habits are hard to break."
The result of eating all that food, much of it brought home by Sol, who would never allow leftovers from the bakery to be dumped, was a conflict: between consumption and consequence (obesity), which led to criticism by the very man who had provided the food.
"When you look at magazines or watch TV, it's all about thin, thin, thin," says Filler. "We feel so out of control because of the way the world is, but you always feel you can control your body, make it thin or fat or painless, through doing drugs. It's a very strong weapon for women, so when we turn it on ourselves it can be a killer."
Among the 27 characters Filler gives voice to in this production are Aunt Vippy, who believes the cure for all ailments is Chinese takeaways; her mother, who sends cheesecake from the other side of the world; a lesbian lover, a manic sister, a range of boyfriends, a Greek guy who ran a fat farm. Even the family's series of sometimes fatally overweight dogs - all called Lucky - are in there.
Filler has been working on Filler Up for the past six years. The script was co-written by theatre professor Lowry Marshall of Brown University in Providence; and it has been extensively workshopped, including in New Zealand where Filler worked with Stuart Devenie, who "brought a masculine New Zealand ethic to it".
In London, on board came the redoubtable Russian director Irina Brown, former artistic director of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. Brown directed Jerry Hall in The Vagina Monologues, and is responsible for staging the Royal Opera House production of Boris Godunov, which opened last week.
Brown's style is to cut to the chase, says Filler. "Irina said to me, 'Deb, what is this play about?' I said, 'Well, it's about the mother-daughter relationship, it's about survival, it's about life ... "'
"No! What is this play about?"
More blah-blah-blah from Filler about "love and panic, starvation and puberty, boys and girls ... "
"No! What is this play about?"
"Bread," Filler finally had to admit.
And laughter. "One of the strands that has been braided throughout my own work is the practicality of laughing. Laughing is a way to make people vulnerable and bring them in. To me, this is a wonderful momentous thing, there are no barriers between me and the audience."
Filler Up premiered in London in March, where it had great reviews in publications such as the Times Literary Supplement and Time Out. She has been invited back next year to perform a double bill, with Punch Me in the Stomach.
The two productions, she says, are what she calls "stuff that's of social significance that comes from the marrow.
"The shows in between are lighter stuff, because you can't be at that level all the time. For Christ's sake," she adds mockingly, "even Shakespeare wrote comedies."
* What: Filler Up
* Where: Maidment Theatre
* When: Oct 2-Nov 1, 8pm