BY LAURA WESTERMAN On Friday evening, Temple University’s Tomlinson Theater saw the opening of Big Love, the Obie award-winning romantic comedy written by contemporary American playwright Charles Mee. Written in 2000, Big Love adheres to Mee’s collage-like style of writing and represents a re-imagining of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women for a contemporary audience. Directed by New Yorker Jill Harrison, the play will be running at Tomlinson Theater until February 20th.
The play tells the story of 50 Greek sisters who flee to Italy in the hope of escaping their fate as soon-to-be wives. With a cast of seven, Harrison focuses on three of the sisters – Lydia, Thyona and Olympia – to explore their trials and in the process question whether conventional ideas of romance and marriage can exist in a modern day society. The play is set on the veranda of a grand Italian villa, where the three sisters are followed by their obstinate suitors — Nikos, Oed and Constantine — and the audience witnesses the conflicting personalities of each sister and their futile efforts to escape their betrothed.
Riddled with sexual innuendos and fiercely humorous exchanges between the sisters and their male antagonists, Mee’s humorous and modern script is nothing short of brilliant. Interestingly, Thyona, the cynic and feminist of the bunch who has most control over her siblings, takes her anger too far in scenes that see all three sisters dive to the floor and roll around screaming at the invisible male populace. In these scenes of particular aggression and ferocity, the battle for power between men and women is exaggerated. Yet, this does not interrupt the play’s fundamental concern, never once moving away from the question: do contemporary marriages work, or do we just “make do” with what we can get?
Temple’s predominately student cast (including an additional two actors that are appearing courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association) shone onstage. They each delivered with precision and theatrical professionalism, never once faltering with line delivery or stage placement — no small feat considering that the 90-minute play has no intermission. Having to sing, dance and act in a single play is no simple task, but the actors fully engaged the audience in every scene and went beyond what was required (even embracing the partial nude scenes with audacity). Daniel Boylen’s inventive set design allowed for effective actor-audience engagement.
Thankfully, Harrison does not shy away from including Mee’s intended musical accompaniment. Hilarity accompanies pure realism as Harrison successfully balances dramatic (and often comedic) monologues that directly address the audience with singing and simple choreography to popular music by such artists as Florence and the Machine. In addition, the occasional piano-playing by Guiliano was particularly impressive and complemented the more intense scenes effectively. Despite the occasional audio hiccup (when the music being a bit too loud for every word to be heard clearly), the sound was spectacular, as was the lighting. The costumes were simple (with the exception of Olympia’s glamorous wedding dress), not distracting us from the important dialogue or the character interactions.
Overall, the play was a spectacular amalgamation of raw talent, sexual tension, symbolic expression, light-hearted comedy and popular culture, all juxtaposed with the serious topic of male-female relations. Both Harrison and the gifted actors stay true to Mee’s vision through a dramatic and moving performance making Temple University’s Big Love a must-see in this coming week.