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Actress Irit Kaplan isn't full-figured. She isn't curvy, nor is she heavy-set or voluptuous. Sipping a cup of coffee in a Tel Aviv sandwich shop, she describes herself as most people would. "I'm fat," she says.
A painful but increasingly relevant adjective for young Israelis, the label would spell doom for Kaplan's onstage colleagues, most of whom labor under the same impossible physical standards as their counterparts on Broadway. But the 33-year-old Kaplan knows she has no need for euphemisms, happily describing herself as "beautiful" even as she acknowledges her sometimes burdensome physique.
There are reasons for her confidence - perhaps more now than at any previous moment in her career. A veteran of nearly a decade of regular work at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater, Kaplan has achieved new levels of recognition and acclaim over the past six months, creating something of a national profile for herself on prime time soap opera Ha'Alufa (The Champ). The past month has seen the Bat Yam native celebrate her 100th starring performance in her latest Cameri production, as well as a ceremony honoring her as the theater's top actress of the current season. Minutes after Kaplan delivers her concise "fat" description, a passing coffee drinker offers an equally succinct appraisal: "You're great."
The compliment earns an appreciative nod from Kaplan, who says she's grateful for the prominence and public voice afforded her by the overweight characters she's played on the stage and screen.
"I have an effect on other women by not looking like Galit Guttman or Miri Bohadana," she says, referring to two of the country's top fashion models. "Maybe it's my role to raise this flag."
An aspiring star since her early childhood, Kaplan has earned her greatest acclaim in the period since her 30th birthday. She's currently performing in three Cameri plays, the newest of which is Hashmena - the first Hebrew-language production of acclaimed Neil Labute drama Fat Pig. (The play is sometimes accompanied by English subtitles.)
Like the American playwright's other works, which also include The Shape of Things and Your Friends & Neighbors, the play offers an acute and remorseless look at the role of appearance and sex in ordinary relationships. The play's title character - a pleasant office worker named Helen - meets Tom, another office worker, by chance during a lunch break, unexpectedly charming him with joking comparisons between his meal (a responsible salad) and hers (pizza and a drink).
Kaplan and her co-star (Micha Selektor) bring an easygoing chemistry to the play's burgeoning romance, with the self-assured Helen telling Tom she's comfortable with her weight and expects the same of her boyfriend. But his happiness in private moments is undermined at the office, where two of the character's colleagues mock Helen's weight with the type of childish cruelty usually practiced most effectively by adults.
The play's dramatic pull grows along with Helen's insecurity, with the seemingly well-adjusted protagonist asking in increasingly plaintive terms why her boyfriend refuses to go out with her in public, and ultimately making an offer that would have devastated her character at the start. The play's final scene is as abrupt as a decapitation, and in typical Labute style offers no solutions or comforting ideas about the limits of human weakness and superficiality.
Kaplan dominates her scenes, peeling away Helen's outward confidence to reveal hopes and insecurities the character herself probably didn't know she had. It's a transformation Kaplan says she identifies with personally.
"It was very difficult to do the show during the first month," she says. "I had a similar story in my personal life. I took it out on stage instead of putting it at the back of my heart."
The actress calls Hashmena a form of therapy, remarking that her performance the previous night brought back many of the feelings she struggled with at the show's start. But she's buoyed by the support of fans, whose numbers have grown significantly since the premiere of Ha'Alufa in March. The soap opera about a Jerusalem sports team found Kaplan in another troubled romance - this time with a soccer player harassed by teammates over his feelings for Yafit, the team owners' overweight assistant.
The similarities between Yafit and Helen are instantly obvious, Kaplan acknowledges, though she also points out important differences in the two characters' story arcs. Though the television show - which returns for another season next year - was the less artistically ambitious of the two projects, Kaplan's character comes in for perhaps its most perceptive psychological analysis, with Yafit's normally dim boyfriend dealing her an unexpectedly articulate emotional blow in the lead-up to the season finale.
"We weren't doing Chekhov," Kaplan says, "but it had a big impact. People think my name is Yafit now."
She hopes her character will be brought back for Ha'Alufa's sophomore run, but says she's pleased with the effect the character has already had. She doesn't mind being identified as the country's "fat actress," saying she appreciates the opportunity to explore issues of prejudice and acceptance through characters that remain multi-dimensional.
Kaplan plans to lose weight after Hashmena ends its run, explaining that the decision is based on health concerns and that she'll drop the pounds by watching what she eats. (She already exercises regularly, she says.)
She knows she'll never be thin, nor does she want to be. She's currently serving for a second year as the spokesmodel for Rubens, a plus-size clothing line advertised around the country. And she continues to get feedback from unexpected quarters about how her TV role altered Israelis' understanding of their own appearance.
"It's good that newspapers are talking about it," she says of continuing phone calls from journalists interested in talking about her weight.
She smiles as she discusses the surprisingly broad spectrum of TV viewers who've complimented her work as Yafit. "Religious people, elderly people, people you never think" were watching the soap opera, she says. "I went to the Western Wall before Yom Kippur to [ask for forgiveness], and an army of religious teens was taking photos of me with their cell phones. At the Wall I was getting autograph requests."
"I've completely lost my private life," she says, but she doesn't mean it only in negative terms.
After several relationships that failed because of her weight - she mentions one break-up as particularly painful - her dating life has picked because of men who she says now feel less social stigma about approaching overweight women.
Worries about appearance can be "poison" in relationships, she continues, recalling a decision she now regrets to break up with a man her friends considered ugly. "Suddenly I saw him differently," she says.
"Today I don't ask anyone what they think. If I love someone, that's it."