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Exploring gender differences and human need in broad strokes, the UALR Theatre Arts and Dance Department’s production of “Big Love” premiered April 19 to a nearly-filled house.
Based on Charles Mee’s play, “Big Love” takes place at a Dali-esque villa on the Italian west coast, and is set in an appropriately surrealist mashup of ancient Greek and modern-day society. Mee has specialized in adapting Greek plays, and “Big Love” is a reimagining of Aeschylus’s “The Supplicants.”
Indoctrination to the play’s world begins in the lobby with a video loop, laptop with attendant slide show, thematic collages, a diorama and displays of the director’s journal and the set design. The action begins when comely Lydia (Ganelle Paxton), fleeing Greece and a mass arranged marriage by boat with 49 of her would-be bride cousins, makes landfall, seeking asylum. With starry-eyed Olympia (Stephanie Ong) and steely eyed man-hater Thyona (Melanie Shank, getting many of the best lines) occupying opposite ends of the continuum, Lydia is its center.
But all three harmonize a similar sentiment in giddily singing “You Don’t Own Me.” It is a short-lived freedom. Soon, the 50 jackbooted grooms-in-waiting descend from helicopters, rappelling in droog-like militaristic glory, demanding their right to “traditional” marriage.
This theme — whose practices become “traditional”? — is one of many more merely raised than examined or given judgment upon. The politics of such things have been ripe for tweaking since Aeschylus’s day. And current geopolitics get tossed in as well: “Do you see what happens when Americans want something?” Constantine (Brandon Hall) blares as the grooms march in and forcibly claim brides. It is explained that the Greek men got Americanized during U.S. travels. Neither the men nor women want to give in, though some are genuinely in love. At times one could attach symbolism in “Big Love” to many recent turn-the-other-cheek moments on the world stage, such as the Cold War, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or either Bush’s Iraqi wars — all of which could in turn be explained in relationship-like metaphor. Discuss.
One issue not given sober treatment is homosexuality — the fey flamboyance of Giuilano (Christian Davis) is played for yuks, and the house roared at Davis’ admittedly comic swishy stereotypes. But the swaths of sexual and social stereotypes are the springboard for the big themes of “Big Love,” and it is Giuliano who delivers one of the answers to questions on the human condition the play poses: “Everyone should be free to choose for themselves.”
In addition to playing alpha male grooms, the two founders of the Little Rock quintet the Munks (Aaron Grimm and Brooks Browning) help propel the show’s action with several Munks original songs, a Tom Waits song and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Oed (Bennett Ryel, also a Munk) shows his sensitive male side with his sympathetic violin and turn as a conflicted avenging groom. Other productions of “Big Love” surely suffered in the music’s absence.
“Big Love” will be staged at the University Theatre Center for Performing Arts today (April 26) through Sunday, April 29. Parental discretion has been suggested for adult themes.