It's a pretty wild ride when a play that involves a number of harsh invectives against opposing sexes, followed up by a good, old-fashioned group slaughter, ends with this particular lesson. And in The Hilberry's production of Big Love, that wild ride is definitely worth the ups and downs, the backs and forths, the blood and guts that it takes to get there!
Based on Aeschylus's The Suppliant Women (the oldest extant piece of Western dramatic literature), Big Love is the story of fifty sisters (represented in the play by only three: Lydia [Sarah Hawkins Moan], Thyona [Danielle Cochrane] and Olympia [Megan Barbour]) who have just run away from their pre-arranged wedding to their fifty cousins (represented in the play by only three: Nikos [Brent Griffith], Constantine [David Sterritt] and Oed [Brandon Grantz]). Having made their Greek escape, they come upon an Italian estate and a young man named Giuliano [Topher Payne]. The estate, Giuliano informs them, is owned by his uncle Piero [Brandy Joe Plambeck] and Piero's mother Bella [Annie Keris] - and it is to Piero that the women turn in hopes of asylum from their forced marriages. Of course, the men follow, the women are indeed forced to marry, and they make a pact that none of the grooms will live through their wedding night. Ripe subject matter for comedy... right?
Well, it turns out that this millenia-old tragedy is, in fact, fertile ground for laughter in the hands of playwright Charles L. Mee and director Blair Anderson. The contemporary adaptation, which premiered in 2000, puts gender roles on display in all their raw, naked, messy glory - and we can't help but laugh at the absurdity. But the laughter bangs up against the painful truth - as Constantine tells us - and we never really can escape the pain if we are to truly live. Anderson's staging is almost ritualistic, evoking the Greek roots of the play. And though I think he shied away from some of the iconic script elements (alas, I waited all night for a "seductive hostile butt dance" that never came*), and the slaughter lacked the desperate violence that I think it needed, in general, he and movement director Cheryl Turski sculpted emotionally thrilling and thematically illustrative stage pictures and movement pieces that made for a vivid and lively performance. And as for the language - which is poetic and winding and even downright mystifying at times - Anderson and his cast weave in and out of the words with fluidity and wit. The fact is: this is a production in which everyone - director, designers and actors - seem to be really, truly enjoying themselves.
The central six characters are uniformly strong. Sarah Hawkins Moan is powerful and relatable as the conflicted Lydia. Danielle Cochrane is simultaneously formidable and fragile as the militant Thyona. Megan Barbour is a hoot as the materialistic, pin-up girl Olympia. (Truth be told, Barbour steals more than a few scenes with her spot-on comic delivery and her calculated ditziness.) David Sterritt is unsettling and charismatic as the angry and entitled leader of the men, Constantine. He is somehow able to remain likeable to the audience while spewing some of the darkest lines of the play. Brandon Grantz is charming and agile as the retiring Oed. And Brent Griffith as Nikos does a wonderful job humanizing "the enemy," bringing heart and complexity to the men's side of this particular battle. Rounding out the laudable ensemble, the peripheral characters are delightful as well. Topher Payne's Giuliano is wistful and endearing as he battles alongside the women for his own self-actualization. Brandy Joe Plambeck is grounded and cool as the pragmatic Piero, and delightfully alive as Leo (and oh, that shirt!). And while Annie Keris is amusing as the daffy weekender Eleanor, her turn as Bella is simply superb. With razor-sharp comic timing and lyrical sincerity, she deftly navigates Mee's poetry and, when all is said and done, does no less than anchor the show (and oh, the tomatoes!).
The scenic design by Leazah Behrens is effective, giving us a sort of sacred circle that becomes both the classical Greek altar on which the action unfolds, as well as the boxing ring where the grand bout plays out. The projections, created by Sarah Pearline, are sometimes useful, sometimes less so, but pretty much always attractive and interesting. Thomas Schraeder's lighting design does its part to play up the battle of the sexes with dueling beams of pink and blue light fighting it out on the predominantly white costumes. And speaking of which: the costumes by Anne Suchyta are generally a lot of fun. The wedding gowns are lovely, and the individual pieces worn by the brides-to-be do a great job painting their unique characters (though I have to admit, Olympia's costume really didn't seem to fit the actress very well). And the few men who aren't decked out in their wedding tuxes bring just the right interest and flair to the stage (Leo's shiny orange shirt, for example, is burned into my brain!). The sound design by Samuel Byers and original music composed by Bobby DeLisle are evocative and entertaining, supporting the action and movement of the play with cleverness and insight.
Despite what the Hilberry may tell you, Big Love is not exactly a "classic" in the classic sense - and the season is all the better for its inclusion. Big Love is a postmodern explosion of poetry and imagery and sensation and love. It's a story worth seeing, ideas worth hearing, emotions worth feeling... and man, is it just a helluva lot of fun!
Big Love by Charles L. Mee (Director: Blair Anderson; Lydia: Sarah Hawkins Moan; Olympia: Megan Barbour; Thyona: Danielle Cochrane; Bella/Eleanor: Annie Keris; Piero/Leo: Brandy Joe Plambeck; Giuliano: Topher Payne; Constantine: David Sterritt; Oed: Brandon Grantz; and Nikos: Brent Griffith) continues at The Hilberry Theatre through December 7. Tickets range from $12-$30. For more information, visit http://theatre.wayne.edu/ourshows.php or http://hilberry.wordpress.com/.
*In the script there is a stage direction that calls for a "seductive hostile butt dance." This is up there with "Exit, pursued by bear" as one of the greatest stage directions of all time.