“Big Love” pushes limits

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Theater Department launches its new Production Ensemble with a bang this weekend with “Big Love,” a play by Charles Mee, to be performed at 7:00 on Saturday and Sunday on the LPAC Mainstage. The production is directed by theater professor Erin Mee, the playwright’s daughter.

The play is an extremely loose adaptation of Aeschylus’s “The Suppliant Women,” which some scholars label as the oldest surviving play of the Western world. Fifty sisters flee to Italy from Greece to escape forced marriage to their cousins. They invade an Italian family’s household, but find a mixed welcome. When their would-be husbands catch up with them, they plot revenge.

Mee’s play is both up-to-date and highly physical. The five sisters enter by awkwardly climbing onto the stage from the audience, and then proceed to turn somersaults, smash anything at hand, and lip-synch to “You Don’t Own Me.” The play is full of these physical interludes, choreographed by Janice Im ’06, where language is suspended in favor of chaotic, sometimes dance-like movement.

The play also stops time in a quieter way, in the form of long, meditative monologues, such as that of Bella (Anne Coleman ’09), an Italian grandmother, who slowly describes her fifteen sons, smashing tomatoes on the floor to represent the less successful ones. Needless to say, this is a very messy production.

The most crucial of Mee’s changes though, is his creation of complicated characters, not something that the Greeks considered important. Instead of an anonymous crowd, the sisters include from romantic and reflective Lydia (Sofia Rivkin-Haas ’09), ditsy Olympia (Randall Johnston ’09), determined feminist Thyona (Marilyn Batonga-Ngassa ’08), and their would-be husbands aggressive Constantine (Joseph Borkowski ’08) and shy Nikos (Colin Aarons ’09). Garth Griffin ’09 plays the sisters’ reluctant host, and Michael Karcher ’07 his flamboyant nephew.

The production has very strong technical values, with lighting by Professor James Murphy, and sets and costumes by Professor Marsha Ginsberg, who gives the stage a spectacularly surrealistic look marked by bright blue Astroturf, tall white walls, a piano, and a large white bathtub. The entire production acquires the surreal tint of a 1970s wedding gone horribly wrong, from the stock music choices to the sisters’ wedding dresses to the cousins’ light blue tuxes and even to the pile of presents and wedding cake.

The actors dive into this extreme theatricality with admirable enthusiasm, taking the audience along an exploration of the nature of relationships and gender roles, with a campy rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” along the way. It’s a melange of many seemingly disparate styles and moods that do come together, and form a horrifying final scene.

The production replaces the usual spring Junior Company, and is open by audition to all students who have taken Acting I. This year’s cast has a very large freshman contingent, surely a good sign for the years to come.

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