Runaway Brides

What's love got to do with it?: Big Love tackles the toughest question known to man (and woman)

What's love got to do with it?: Big Love tackles the toughest question known to man (and woman)

Austin photo: Event_Big Love_Poster

Ready to get heady about love?

In the Long Center's Rollins Theatre, Shrewd Productions explores the conundrum of this impossibly gargantuan subject in a thought provoking new production of playwright Charles Mee's Big Love. Arts critic and Austin theater veteran Robert Faires directs a fearless team of actors through a complex labyrinth of a play that touches on the interconnected social, political and personal aspects of love.

Yeah, it's big. There's a reason Mee chose that title.

Big Love is a very modernized adaptation of the Greek playwright Aeschylus' Danaid trilogy, depicting 50 betrothed sisters desperately fleeing from 50 pursuing grooms. The sisters' father arranged the marriages without their permission and, like most of us, they would do anything to avoid marrying someone they don't love.

In the expected course of a Greek tragedy, there will be blood and some important learned moral lessons. But as these characters express their views, such topics as gender inequality, compromised masculinity, arranged marriage, sexual assault and actual true love all collide in the show's justifications for and against the necessity of marriage. It's a timely debate that may feel fresh to some but a retread to others. But with all the opinions presented within Mee's succinct monologues, you'll undoubtedly find the points where you can agree or disagree on the matters of marriage equality.

Using broad strokes to imply an Italian villa a boat ride away from Greece, Big Love is set in a timeless environment that combines the tone and traditions of Aeschylus' plays with today's politics and pop culture. The characters refer to cars, trains and helicopters, but speak confidently in the mannered style of ancient Greece. The effect is an untidy Neverland where modernity clashes with idealistic thinking, tradition contends with personal freedom.

On a stark white stage, brides and grooms dressed all in wedding white reveal their own opinions about their predicament one by one. Dragging their literal and metaphorical baggage on to the stage, the stage gets progressively more crowded with opinions and conflict. By the end of this very active, physically demanding play, the otherwise pristine stage is itself left in upheaval as well.

The Greek-inspired, larger-than-life characters represent the full spectrum of conflicting opinions on the subject of marriage, and combining them in new pairings allows the actors to explore individual dynamics with their opposition. For example, the most outspoken sister, Thyona, and her intended groom, Constantine, are the two polar opposites on the marriage morality spectrum, while wise elder Bella (played by the beloved Lana Dieterich) is cast in the dead center as the moral compass on love and marriage. 

The powerful Julianna Elizabeth Wright brings bride-to-be Thyona's feminist-separatist viewpoints to vivid, eloquent life, declaring the inherent violence in forcing women to marry. In stark contrast to her sisters, Thyona believes that happiness is an impossibility for women, that marriage and true love can only bring a lifetime of misery. She is spiteful about her lot in life and bemoans her own unfortunate disposition.

Meanwhile, her outspoken nemesis Constantine (played by an equally spirited Rommel Sulit) advocates the need to "share" violence upon women so men no longer shoulder the burden of experiencing violence by themselves. Constantine essentially justifies abuse and rape under the misguided pretense that it would help women understand men better and bring the two sexes closer together.

Luckily, Mee never requires these two bitter enemies to uncharacteristically fall in love. Instead, they represent the endurance of uncompromising hatred that defies the possibility of love. Although they may seem like impossible stereotypes, their well-written speeches and competently delivered performances conjure believability and even sympathy.

Thyona's sisters, Olympia (Andreá Smith) and Lydia (Shannon Grounds), remain open to the possibility of love and regret their fate because they will never find it for themselves. Thyona rebukes Olympia especially for admitting she enjoys the feeling of being submissive, that she is attracted to men because they make her feel protected and cared for. The sisters' disputes mirror the various waves of feminism, embodying each of those viewpoints in relation to the topic of marriage. In another instance, when one of the sisters reveals she may have developed feelings for her groom, the other sisters read this as a betrayal of their trust instead of as a happy occasion.

With all the discussion of gender inequality, mistrust and violence, there's another underlying question of why men and women ever continue to depend on one another in matters of love at all. The appearance of the villa owner's gay son Giuliano (played by scene-stealing newcomer Michael Slefinger) represents this question concretely, manifesting the specter of homosexuality that hovers on the outskirts of this conversation. Ultimately, who we love is out of our hands—straight people cannot help it any more than gay people can—and so, different-sexed partners will always have the disadvantage of not fully understanding their spouses. Giuliano seems content with his lot in life, although unable to marry. 

Despite the weighty concepts of the play, the characters are generally likeable and clear in their objectives. Faires must be commended for realizing the possibility for over dramatic hysterics and opting instead for more universal approaches of humor and subtlety. The entire cast speaks Mee's formal language with authority and ease, imbuing it with their own personal flair.

Humor plays a vital part in the script and often juxtaposes the very serious discussions of violence that underlie the play's trajectory. The more fanciful characters in the play, like Giuliano and Anne Hulsman's happy homemaker, Eleanor, deliver some of the most hilarious lines from the script while the miserable brides-to-be stare out hopelessly, resigned to their terrible fates.

Love is a concept that scientists, spiritualists and artists have tried to unlock for centuries, and no one is really any closer to outlining it for us than when we started. Big Love won't reveal all the mysteries of the world either. But what it will do is make you think about the interconnectedness of it all.

Overwhelmingly, it's the little things that matter most and help everyone keep believing in the necessity for love. Bella and Giuliano seem to get this better than any of the others. And Mee, who demonstrates it with the play's series of small, window-into-the-soul monologues that show exactly what he's talking about.

It helps, I think, to go in knowing you won't understand everything in Big Love. You can't: it's too big. And that's okay. No one is hoping to unlock the mysteries of love in two hours. But it sure is nice to think about it for a little while. And nice to be reminded that everyone sees it a little bit differently than we do.

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Shrewd Productions' Big Love plays Nov 10 - 27 at the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center. Tickets are still available.

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