There is truth in advertising in Project SEE Theatre's latest production, Big Love. Opening on Valentine's Day, the play emphasizes the bigness of its subject matter, love, in both performance and technical aspects.
The play's very premise is intentionally hyperbolic.
Fifty sisters flee a forced marriage to their 50 cousins, all brothers, seeking asylum at the home of a wealthy Italian, Piero (played here with somber fairness by Peter Stone) and his mother, Bella (Patti Heying, embodying Old World wisdom).
But the sisters' betrothed cousins come looking for them, determined to claim their brides. The ensuing struggle is mired in big themes — gender wars, aggression and submission, free will and social justice and, of course, love itself.
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If the whole thing sounds a bit Greek, that's because it is.
Historian-turned-playwright Charles Mee modeled Big Love after Aeschylus' The Suppliants, re-imagining the tragedy for modern times. The play debuted to wide acclaim in 2000 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville and has been popular since.
Director Sullivan Canaday White strikes an unlikely but elegant balance between ancient and contemporary elements by embracing the behemoth scale of the themes in Mee's script, which is written in verse. Classical scenes are rhythmically punctuated by sudden, frenzied, euphoric, extremely loud musical romps, each which emphasize group relationships (think sisters dancing in their underwear singing You Don't Own Me) before propelling the plot forward like a slingshot.
White wrings out every bit of space in the Downtown Arts Center's black box theater, with in-the-round action pulsing to the walls and even into the risers before contracting back inward to the center of Mike Sanders' octagonal set design. There, a porcelain claw-foot tub reposes, its organic curves contrasting with the clean geometry of the floor space.
This is where we first meet Lydia (Ellie Clark) as she slips off her wedding dress and slinks into tub, casting off her former life. She is later joined by her 49 sisters, represented by four actors. For a few moments, the sisters are safe and happy, but all of that changes when their jilted grooms helicopter into the villa to claim what they believe is rightfully theirs.
It is no coincidence that Mee wrote each bride as a potent foil for her counterpart groom. Take Thyona (Holly Brady) and her intended, Constantine (Evan Bergman). Brady is as fierce as Thyona, the unrelenting defender of individual freedom and an ardent man hater; Bergman is raw and primal as Constantine, the ultimate misogynist brute. They are so alike in the vehemence of their stances that you almost want to them to get together, an impossibility, of course, but one that brings symmetry to the opposing forces that drive the play.
Bergman's monologue about the expectation that men should be animalistic killers during war and repress those urges the rest of the time is one of the most riveting moments of the show.
Clark and Timothy Hull share a similarly raw and revelatory truth in the chase and retreat of their characters' romance, each peeling back protective layers of their characters to expose the vulnerability and courage that redeems the tragic demises of their kin.
IF YOU GO
What: Project SEE Theatre's production of Charles L. Mee's play.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15-17, 21-23; 2 p.m. Feb. 24
Where: Black Box Theatre, Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $20 adults, $16 ages 65 and older, $12 student with valid ID; available at Downtown Arts Center box office, by calling (859) 225-0370 or at Lexarts.tix.com.
Learn more: Projectseetheatre.com