Friday, October 11, 2013

Theater Review: Big Love -- CT Repertory


Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Current Themes Drive Adaptation of Ancient Play
By Lauren Yarger
The year: 463BC. Aeschylus writes a play called The Suppliants about 50 sisters who flee forced marriages in Egypt and seek help from a king in Argos. 

The year: 2000 AD. Charles Mee writes Big Love, an adaptation of the play which has 50 sisters escaping forced marriages in Greece and seeking help from a wealthy villa owner in Italy.

The message of the latter, presented by CT Repertory at UConn’s Nate Katter Theatre, is that the plight of women hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries.

Here the 50 sisters, led by Lydia (Briana Maia), Olympia (Marisa Desa) and Thyona (Olivia Saccomanno) are outraged by their father’s authority to force them to marry their cousins, Nikos (James Jelkin ), Constantine (Anthony J. Goes ) and Oed (Colby Lewis) against their will. They hijack a boat and sail to Italy, where they mistake a villa, owned by Piero (Mark Elliot Wilson), for a hotel and arrive to the tune of “You Don’t Own Me” (sound design by Brandon Purstell).

Lydia strikes up a friendship with Piero’s effeminate nephew, Guiliano (Darek Burkowski), who tells her she and her sisters will have to appeal to his uncle for help. Piero is reluctant at first to risk his own property and position to help strangers who aren’t even family. But his mother, Bella (Libby George), likes them and since she throws a lot of tomatoes, he agrees.

The grooms, stood up at the altar, aren’t giving up so easily, however, and they land in an assault attack via helicopters (lighting design by Erika Johnson) to take their brides by force (to the tune of “I’m Too Sexy for My Shirt”). Piero offers to negotiate on the girls’ behalf, but his compromise of allowing only half of the women to be forced into marriage isn’t acceptable, especially to Thyona, facing a dark future with the brute and abusive Constantine.

Complications arise, however, when Lydia truly falls in love with Nikos and vain, flighty Olympia discovers that she doesn’t mind being dominated by men all that much. And there are all of those pretty wedding gifts to consider… Thyona rallies the girls into sisterhood, however, and makes them promise to murder their husbands on the forced wedding night. When Lydia refuses to go along with the plan, she is put on trial for betrayal to her sisters and threatened with death.

There are a number of interesting thoughts conveyed from time to time with contemporary reference, particularly to current headlines about nations standing by (like Piero) while women are routinely raped in some countries or where mass genocide takes place. We also think of our own politicians unable to compromise and older, white men debating and deciding the rights of women. If you don’t lose concentration during the many really long monologues, there are some insights on life in any century to be gained, like when Constantine ponders how society has changed the rules of what’s right and wrong or on how to cope.

“Life is rape,” he tells Thyona. “No one asks to be born. No one asks to die. We are all taken by force, all the time. You make the best of it. You do what you have to do.”

The problem is staying with the dialogue and trying to make sense out of what is happening. Let’s start with the title: Big Love. Most people seated around me in the audience thought it had to do with Mormonism, given the popular TV show of the same name. Um, no, but there’s not a whole lot of love happening on the stage, so the title never does become clear.

Directed by Helene Kvale, these folks spend a lot of time throwing themselves flat onto mattress cushions (choreography by Marie Boyette), needed to protect themselves from the hard, marble looking stone squares that make up the villa’s terrace (set design by Tim Golebiewski). To show their frustration/anxiety about feeling like they are bashing into walls all of the time? Bella smashes a lot of tomatoes. Not sure why. All of this is too much work to try to figure out while watching a play about a bunch of characters who aren’t likable.

Production notes in the program help a little, but the information that we were supposed to be in 1964, indicated by scenic, sound and costuming choices amidst the VietNam War and the rise of feminism – a moment in time that was “touchstone between ancient Greece—home of Sappho, one of the earliest feminine voices – and America” came as a complete surprise. White Danksin type skirts with flowing robes (costume design by Pat Ubaldi ) signify the 60s? More confusion came when the girls, who supposedly had arrived in their wedding dresses, change to other wedding dresses for the forced ceremony…..

The creepiest part for me came when an elderly gentleman in the audience, who had remained very silent during the play -- even at some moments that brought general laughter from the rest of us -- suddenly laughed with delight when a mass murder took place. So who knows, even though this wasn’t my cup of tea, perhaps others will enjoy it. 

Thomas Brazzle, Alyson Danielczuk, Kaitlyn Gorman, Will Haden, Ryan Marcone and Susannah Resnikoff complete the ensemble

Big Love plays through Oct. 13 in the Nafe Kutter Theatre on the Storrs campus of UConn. Show dates and performance times vary and are subject to change: (860) 486-2113; www.crt.uconn.edu.

Note: Big Love is part of Mee’s “Remaking Project,” plays inspired by other works http://charlesmee.org/. This show contains nudity.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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