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Big Love,’ Big Issues: FTT department tackles remake of classic

Erin McGinn | Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Questions of love and gender politics have been central aspects of the human condition from the time of the ancient Greeks until the modern era. These questions also lie at the core of Charles L. Mee’s play “Big Love,” the first mainstage production of the film, television and theater (FTT) department’s 2006-2007 season.

Based on Aeschylus’s “The Suppliant Women,” which is considered the earliest surviving play in Western drama, “Big Love” takes the ancient plot of its source material and updates it as an examination of modern gender politics, creating a theatrical hybrid of vaudeville and tragicomedy.

The play opens in turmoil, with 50 Greek brides flee by boat to an Italian in order to escape their forced marriages to their 50 cousins. The 50 sisters are represented by three: Lydia (Sarah Loveland), Thyona (Megan O’Donoghue) and Olympia (Tashi Thomas). After convincing the villa’s owner Piero (Luke Cieslewicz), his nephew Giuliano (Conor Woods) and grandmother Bella (Meg Robenalt) to allow them to stay, their plans are abruptly thwarted by the arrival of the 50 grooms, led by Constantine (Drew McElligott), Nikos (Matt Goodrich) and Oed (Mike Anderson). The two opposing sides find their strongest voices in the extreme positions of Thyona and Constantine.

Plans are hatched, emotions explode and an engaging dialogue on the inequalities of the human experience is present throughout the play. Mee blends the age-old battle of the sexes found in Aeschylus’s original text with various contemporary American themes, such as domestic abuse, date rape and gender inequality. Much of the play is taken up in an exhaustive and exhausting demonstration of just how deeply gender animosities can grow and how horrifying the consequences can be when a balance is not found.

Directed by FTT faculty member Siiri Scott, “Big Love” has been an exciting, yet difficult production for all involved. The performances are being held in the Philbin Studio Theater at the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, as opposed to the Decio Mainstage. Senior Ashley Kelly, the production’s stage manager, emphasized the flexibility and creativity that the Philbin grants any production. It allows for “limitless things in the space … that wouldn’t be possible in the Decio,” Kelly said.

Kelly also noted the challenge that the space presents for the actors.

“I think its more challenging for an actor,” Kelly said. “Because you get extremely close to the audience, whereas in the Decio you can’t even see them.”

The smaller space also places more emphasis on the staging area itself. The set design is simple and attractive, highlighted by the lighting design of Notre Dame professor Richard Dreyer. The technical difficulties of the play, mainly attributed to the transitions between the varying tempos, are solved through the expert use of music and light throughout the play.

Sophomore crew member Caitlin Madden emphasized the use of the music and light in order to help the audience members follow along with the story.

“You’ve got a whole bunch of different things trying to happen at once and in order to have the audience sit there and respond to these different emotions, you have to make sure that they can feel it,” Madden said.

The fifteen cast members all work together to pull off an exciting and energetic storyline. Although many of the members are veterans of the Notre Dame stage, there are also five freshman members, which is unusual for a mainstage show. The lead actresses, Loveland, O’Donoghue and Thomas, do a skillful job of expressing the emotional distress and duress of the three sisters. Likewise, the three lead males, McElligott, Goodrich and Anderson, serve as ideal balances to all of the points brought up by the women.

The residents of the Italian villa, Cieslewicz, Woods and Robenalt, also do an outstanding job in their roles as outside observers of the central conflict. The cast is rounded out well by Eddie Velazquez, Stephanie Elise Newsome, Ashley Fox, Huyen Nguyen, John Maltese and Joe Vittoria.

Kelly highlighted the struggles of working with such a large cast and crew.

“It’s a pretty big cast, we have 15, which is borderline between medium and large. We also have a huge stage management team, comparatively,” she said. “We have myself, and then a stage manager and then two ASMs.

“And then we also have a director, an assistant director and a fight choreographer. So [there are] just a lot of people.”

Although “Big Love” is inspired by an ancient story, it impressively contains plenty of thoughtful and inspiring themes, bringing light to modern issues regarding gender politics and relationships.

Loveland in particular notes the play’s subject matter and its pertinence to young people.

“It talks a lot about gender politics and the role of relationships and of men and men. And we’re in that stage of our lives, and so are these characters,” Loveland said.

“Big Love” is an excellent production, due to both its outstanding script and the wonderful performances by both cast and crew. It is enjoyable not only as a performance piece, but also a reflection on modernity’s approach to men, women and relationships.

“Big Love” will be performed in the Philbin Studio Theater of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center beginning today at 7:30 p.m. and continuing until Nov. 17. For further information regarding admission and show times, visit the DPAC website, http://performing arts.nd.edu.