A whole lotta runaway brides
|Strawdog Theatre presents|
Review by Joy Campbell
While it unfortunately shares the title of the HBO fictional drama about a polygamous Mormon family, Charles Mee’s Big Love, based on The Suppliants by Aeschylus, has nothing to do with that show. In this play, fifty Greek sisters engaged before birth to fifty of their cousins flee to Italy in a boat and seek refuge in the house of Piero (John Henry Roberts). Belting out Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own me” as they strip off their wedding gowns, the sisters’ enter and set expectations of rowdy Girl-Power irreverence. A range of reactions to the situation is represented, Three Bears-like, by three of the sisters: Olympia (Sarah Goeden), a hilarious personal care-products junkie and all-around Barbie Doll, is in love with the storybook idea of love. She dreams of a man who will love and worship her forever and in return for her obedience will indulge her endlessly. Thyona (Michaela Petro) has had it with men; she’s hurt, angry, and defensive. She has no use for men, considers them all self-serving, and sees treason in any call for compromise in the situation. Stacy Stoltz’s beautifully nuanced Lydia is the voice of moderation, calling men flawed but capable of love and respect, who will be partners in love and trust. It’s easy to identify with all three viewpoints; who hasn’t agreed with each of these women at some point in life?
The three sisters are mirrored by their male fiancés: Delightfully dorky Oed (Kyle A. Gibson), promised to Olympia, is a simple nerd looking for a woman to worship. Nikos (John Ferrick), a sweet, decent man, reveals that he is truly in love with Lydia, and that his love is built on the respect and admiration he developed over a life of observing her. Constantine (Shane Kenyon), Thyona’s proposed mate, is a boorish thug that, for all of his comedic hysteria, is still a man who believes in his right to taking his wife by force.
Employing a creative and amusing use of song, staging, and big characters, Strawdog’s Big Love comments on the varied nature of relationships and the complexity of gender roles. (A particularly well-blocked piece of athleticism by the men illustrates the relentless pressure of the expectations they must fulfill in being at once strong and vulnerable.) Then there’s adorable Giuliano (Paul Fagen) and his own fear of love, culminating in a brilliant cross-dressing performance of a Backstreet Boys hit. It’s not really necessary to the plot, but its entertainment value it’s totally justified.
After negotiations have failed, Thyona persuades the desperate sisters to undertake an extreme course of action; the result is a powerful scene that’s the mother of all Bridezilla episodes, with a touch of hope emerging from the mayhem.
There are lots of good moments in this show: the acting across the board is superb, the staging is wonderful, and the script delivers a lot of food for thought. Those who enjoyed Strawdog’s Red Noses will again see Matt Hawkins’ gift for directing a large cast (this show boasts 32 performers). Mike Mroch’s set of a simple whitewashed space festooned with hanging roses and ribbons of light bulbs is magical. But while the plot starts off on good footing, the story strays a bit in a muddle of philosophical debates on the nature of love, relationships, and self-determination. Is it a comedy? A tragedy? Both? When the men vote to force the marriages, it’s hard to stay objective since they still fall back on their patriarchal might. There are lots of funny, lighthearted moments, but what starts as a comedy gets dark: the subject of forced marriage is not funny when its reality hits home, and it’s hard to have a whimsical, romantic reaction to the notion of unhappy women being sold off by contract.
The portrayal of Thyona is problematic. Petro does a great job of showing us an angry, wounded woman (“Do you think I enjoy being angry all the time?” she asks plaintively.) I was disappointed, though, by the decision to make her so relentlessly humorless, and to have her costumed in a less typically “feminine” fashion: her hair is worn in a butch style, her undergarments recall a wife beater T-shirt and men’s briefs. Instead of white hose and shoes, she sports black fishnets and boots, and heavy dark makeup. It’s an annoying cliché to portray women angry with gender inequality as extreme, less than feminine, and different from all the “normal” girls out there. While I generally dislike “feminine/unfeminine” descriptors, the choices made in this show seem to imply that Thyona is less feminine than her sisters – as if not wanting to have a man forced on you after he’s ranted about “sewing your legs to a bed” is somehow unreasonable. It’s a bit cliché; still, Petro carries the performance well.
Host Pietro observes that true love is rare, and love that lasts more than a little while even more so. According to Big Love, the best course is the middle ground: not too hot, not too cold, but Just Right.
Big Love continues through May 25th at Location, 3829 N. Broadway (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 4pm. Tickets are $28, and are available by phone (866-811-4111) or online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Strawdog.org. (Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Chris Ocken
Anita Deely (Eleanor), Paul Fagen (Giuliano), John Ferrick (Nikos), Kyle A. Gibson (Oed), Sarah Goeden (Olympia), Carmine Grisolia (Leo), Shane Kenyon (Constantine), Michaela Petro (Thyona), John Henry Roberts (Piero), Cheryl Roy (Bella), Stacy Stoltz (Lydia), Dane Halvorson (Piano Man)
Brides and Grooms: Chris Acevedo, John Beal, Sami Cravens, Matt Dealy, Luke Daigle, Michael Medford, Emilie Modaff, Johnny Moran, Shane Michael Murphy, Rasika Ranganathan, Brandon Saunders, Eleni Sauvageau, Kevin Sheehan, Elise Spoerlein, Britni Tozzi, Walls Trimble, Casey Wortmann, Kelly Yanoco
behind the scenes
Matt Hawkins (director); Mike Mroch (scenic designer); Heather Gilbert (lighting designer); Brittany Dee Bodley (costume designer); Jeff Shields (props designer); Heath Hays (sound designer); Marissa Moritz (choreographer); Kathy Logelin (dialect coach); Clare Roche (stage manager); Sarah Burnham (production manager); Charlie McGrath (assistant director); Brian Claggett (technical director); Sarah Espinoza (assistant stage manager); Carrie Hill (assistant props designer), Chris Ocken (photos)