The façade of an Italian courtyard stands ominously on the Hartke stage as the audience files in. A single girl is seated at a table, surrounded by a bathtub and a piano. Everything is pristine and white, but not for long. Pretty soon, tomatoes and blood will be flying since all bets are off in this satisfying production of Charles Mee’s Big Love.
Based on Aeschylus’ The Suppliants, Big Love transplants the archaic tradition of arranged marriage to the modern day as 50 brides flee Greece to break such a contract made before their births. When they are refused refuge as their would-be husbands (who also happen to be their cousins) come to claim them, Lydia (Sara Romanello) and Olympia (Rachel Foley) reluctantly agree to their sister Thyona’s (Ellie Blakeslee) plan to murder them before the wedding night.
Directed by Randy Baker, the production explores two major themes that are incredibly relevant given current events. The first deals with society’s expectations for both men and women. Not only is it torture for a woman to be ruled by men, but it is also argued by Constantine (Ryan Marcinkowski) that it is equally difficult to live in a world that both expects and berates men for dominating women. The second is the question of whether or not to take in refugees. Big Love shows to the extreme the ways in which people will go to defend themselves when they have no home.
As the three sisters, Romanello, Foley, and Blakeslee all bring distinct and specific personalities to the stage as they attempt to protect their independence. While all of them are giving powerhouse performances, it is Foley who should be commended for her humanization of the somewhat spacey Olympia. While she loves boys and presents, it is clear that Olympia wants to be loved and is smart enough to know how to get it. Blakeslee is the enemy of every man as the fiery modern Thyona who decides to take things just a little too far. Romanello as Lydia is torn between these two ideas as she finds herself truly falling for her intended, Nikos (Cengiz Orhonlu).
Their three grooms also mark themselves as incredibly different people with Marcinkowski thundering across the stage as Constantine and Mason Thibault as Ed just trying to go along with the group. Orhonlu as Nikos is an unusual hero as he attempts to woo Lydia under less than ideal circumstances.
Supporting players such as Guiliano (Tommy Stack), Bella (Nicole Smith), Piero (Alex Davis), Eleanor (Kira Burri), and Leo (Conor Meehan) attempt to negotiate a peace, but are left stuck between these warring factions. Watching over this carnage is a Greek Chorus who provides not only an ensemble of brides, but also the music for the production with such hits as “Single Ladies” and “White Wedding.”
What stands out the most in this university production is the technical elements. In addition to the beautiful set by Paige Hathaway and drool-worthy dresses and tuxes by Julie Cray, special effects are the scene-stealer of this play. The climatic fight between the newlyweds staged by Robb Hunter left many gasping in amazement as blood almost magically appeared on the walls from thin air as the chorus murdered their unseen husbands. With the aid of lighting by Brian S. Allard and sound by Thomas Sowers, this brawl is definitely on par with some of the professional productions I have seen.
For those who are looking for the next generation of actors in this town, one does not need to look further than Catholic University to find them. This incredible group of students is bringing an important work to life with passion and finesse. Big Love should not be missed.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Big Love plays through November 22, 2015 at The Catholic University performing in the Hartke Theatre Complex – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 319-4000, or purchase them online.