Big Love

Studio 77, Victoria University, 77 Fairlie Tce, Kelburn, Wellington

04/10/2011 - 08/10/2011

Production Details

Smashing plates. Invasion by helicopter. Flying saw blades. Blood, wine, and wedding dresses. This is the experience the third year Theatre students are having in their staging of Big Love, Charles Mee’s play of grand proportions, opening 4 October at Studio 77.

Big Love is the modern retelling of what is thought to be the earliest surviving play of the western world, Aeschylus’ The Suppliants, first performed in the 420’s BC. It is the story of fifty sisters trying to escape an impending arranged marriage to their fifty cousins, by seeking refuge in Italy. Chaos ensues when the fifty grooms arrive by helicopter. This unruly framework engages the audience in issues of gender, power, and love.

Directed by Theatre Lecturer and researcher of Asian Performance Practises, Dr. Megan Evans, this production will also showcase the acting and design talents of the third year students and fuse Asian and Western theatre practices.  For months the students of THEA 303 of undergone intense physical training and academic research in Chinese Opera, Noh, Kabuki and the contemporary actor training of Tadashi Suzuki. They have also been working with fight choreographer Ricky Dey crafting scenes of high-octane stage combat.

Boasting the fusion of Asian and Western theatre practises, an exquisite set, and a savagely poetic script, this production promises to soar between the beautiful and the brutal.

What: Big Love by Charles Mee, directed by Megan Evans, performed and designed by the students of THEA 303. NZSL interpreted performance on 6 October.
Tuesday 4th October to Saturday 8th October 2011,
7.30pm. Please arrive 30 minutes early to collect and pay for your tickets, cash only.
Where: Studio 77, 77 Fairlie Terrace, Kelburn, Wellington (Gate 10 of Victoria University)
Tickets: $15 waged, $8 unwaged (cash only)


Helen Mackenzie: Bella 
Jono Boodee: Giuliano
Clare Wilson: Giuliano 
Anna Durcan: Piero 
Beth Draper: Eleanor 
Anne Davies-Colley: Eleanor          
Penny Lawrence: Leo
Karin McCracken: Lydia
Raicheal Doohan: Lydia
(For the opening and closing scenes Lydia will be played by Karin on 4, 5 and 7 October, and by Raicheal on 6 and 8 October. For the rest of the show they will share the character.)
Alice Pearce: Thyona
Rosie Alldridge: Thyona
Melissa Sutton: Olympia
Jayden Finlay: Olympia

Sam Hallahan: Nikos
Lauren Gibson: Nikos
(For the closing scenes Nikos will be played by Sam on 4, 5 and 7 October, and by Lauren on 6 and 8 October. For the rest of the show they will share the character.)

Owen Baxendale: Constantine 
Tania Ngata: Constantine 
Fern Wallingford: Oed 


Megan Evans: Director/Course Co-ordinator
Ricky Dey: Fight Choreography / Mentor
Nick Zwart: Lighting Design Mentor
James Davenport: Set Design Mentor
Claire O’Loughlin: Publicity Mentor
Penny Lawrence: Set Design
Tania Ngata: Lighting Design
Rosie Alldridge: Costume (Villa)/Fight coach
Anne Davies-Colley: Costume (Brides)
Helen Mackenzie: Costume (Grooms)
Sam Hallahan: Sound/Fight coach
Karin McCracken: Sound/Publicity 
Owen Baxendale: Publicity/Graphic Design/Dramaturg
Fern Wallingford: Make-up/Sound
Jono Boodee: Props
Beth Draper: Props
Raicheal Doohan: Dance choreography/Fight coach
Lauren Gibson: Dance coach
Clare Wilson: Dramaturg
Elinor Cuttiford: NZSL interpreter for Thursday 6 October performance  

1hr 45min, no interval

Ancient ragbag gets makeover

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 06th Oct 2011

First performed in 2000 in the United States, Big Love is a weird, tragic-comic ragbag of a play adapted from the oldest play in the Western world, The Suppliants byAeschylus. The Danaid Tetralogy, of which The Suppliants is the only surviving play, won for Aeschylus in 463 B.C. first prize in a dramatic contest; Sophocles came second.

Charles L. Mee, an historian and prolific playwright, has taken some of the plot and of course updated it and thrown in all sorts of things such as a helicopter, music ranging from rock’n’roll to Mozart, and borrowings from obscure writers. He believes there is no such thing as an original play and he makes his work freely available on the internet and he imposes no authorial instructions; directors are free to interpret his work as they wish.

The essential part of the plot comes from The Suppliants: 50 brides, all sisters, are fleeing their arranged marriages to their 50 cousins. The brides end up in Italy where they find sanctuary in a vast villa which they think is a hotel. The men pursue them determined on marriage.

The stage is set for discussions, food fights, arguments, and murder stemming from an exhaustive catalogue of the suppression of women: date rape, domestic abuse, drudgery, the temptations of la dolce vita, and gender inequality. The men have their problems too.

Believe it or not there’s a happy ending – for one couple at least:  “For we all live together and come to embrace the splendid variety of life on earth/ good and bad/ sweet and sour/ take it for what it is: the glory of life.”

It has been well described as a vaudevillian tragicomedy. The problem with the production at Studio 77 is its lack of the showbiz vulgarity, energy and camp theatricality (captured in the excellent costumes), despite the brides and later the grooms throwing themselves about the stage like demented rag dolls to demonstrate their hopeless situations.

The skeletal setting of the villa with its staircase works well enough but really comes into its won when the full extent of the studio space becomes evident in the finale that mixes murder and mayhem and a wedding.  
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Diversity unified in timeless tale

Review by John Smythe 05th Oct 2011

Big Love is a New Zealand production influenced by Asian theatre practice of an American playwright’s relatively comedic reworking of an ancient Greek tragedy which is thought to be the earliest surviving play of the western world.

Multiple prize-winning playwright Aeschylus is reputed to have written between 70 to 90 plays, of which only six or seven tragedies (depending on whether you believe he wrote Prometheus Bound) have survived intact. Written about 25 centuries ago, The Suppliants (not to be confused with Euripides’ play of the same name) was probably the opening and only surviving play in a tragic trilogy that was followed by a comedy.

Charles (Chuck) Mee is a contemporary American playwright whose vast body of work includes nine grouped as ‘comedies and romances’, variously based on Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Molière, Anton Chekhov, Bertolt Brecht, René Magritte paintings, Bollywood musicals, and his own writings. His Big Love (written and named before the TV series of the same name, about a Mormon polygamist) is largely based on The Suppliants by Aeschylus and draws text or influences from at least 11 other acknowledged sources.

Declaring (in 1996, according to his Wikipedia entry), “I’m attracted to the idea of things being owned in common,” he has placed 50-odd scripts of his work on and invited people to “pillage the plays as I have pillaged [others] and build your own, entirely new, piece – and then, please, put your own name to the work that results.” He also clarifies that if his plays are performed “essentially or substantially as I have composed them,” they remain protected by copyright – and this THEA 303 production is of his script (give or take the odd element, like flying circular saw blades, which are not risked in the traverse performance space). 

USA-educated Dr Megan Evans, who studied in China for three years and directed a memorable Pericles at VUW’s Studio 77 two years ago, again interweaves Asian and Western theatre practices with Big Love. The media release tells us that the company have undergone intense physical training and academic research in Chinese Opera, Noh, Kabuki and the contemporary actor training of Tadashi Suzuki, plus fight choreography with Ricky Dey, in preparing for this production.

Big Love dramatises the story of “fifty sisters” – depicted by three, here played in tandem by six actors – who flee Greece to seek refugee status in Italy because it has been decreed they must marry fifty male cousins who emigrated to America. (In the time of Aeschylus, war created many widows who were required by law to marry their brothers-in-law or cousins in order to keep the marital property in the family. It is a fair bet that this is the convention he was critiquing.)

The sisters mistake a palatial home for a hotel. Its owner, Piero, is the oldest of 13 sons of the now widowed Bella. She demonstrates their respective fates and worth with a basket of tomatoes. Giuliano, her grandson – Piero’s nephew – also lives there, collects Barbies and Kens and fancies feather boas. A married couple called Eleanor and Leo complete the house party.

Lydia, Thyona and Olympia are the reluctant brides who throw themselves on the mercy of the politely hospitable Piero. He is obliged to take them in once Lydia claims they all whakapapa (not that she uses that term) back to Zeus. While Olympia’s main concern is the lack of “products” around the place, Thyona is the male-hating driver of the sisterhood’s resistance.

The 50 wannabe Grooms – represented by Nikos, Constantine and Oed – arrive by helicopter (excellent sfx and use of light and smoke as the roller door rises to admit them), all swagger and ready to assume their taken-for-granted rights.

Much is said throughout about the nature of maleness, femaleness, male/female, male/male and female/female relationships, and the conditions and nature of love, with attitudes and responses physically manifested in non-naturalistic ways.

Constantine is a traditionalist and aggressively asserts his supposed rights over Thyona. Nikos is more malleable and it turns out he and Lydia actually fancy each other a lot. Olympia and Oed are not that ill-disposed either. But Thyona prevails, even as the wedding proceeds abetted by born-to-be-a-bridesmaid Eleanor. Chaos turns to carnage, not everyone conforms to the game plan and some kind of justice is sought in the quest for a resolution.

Morality takes quite a hiding in the maelstrom of love, loathing, marriage and murder with the obvious message surfacing that forcing everyone into one way of thinking and being is not the answer while accepting diversity is, if the ideal of peaceful coexistence can ever align with the individual freedom to be true to oneself.

I don’t write ‘political plays’ in the usual sense of the term,” writes Mee on his website; “but I write out of the belief that we are creatures of our history and culture and gender and politics — that our beings and actions arise from that complex of influences and forces and motivations, that our lives are more rich and complex than can be reduced to a single source of human motivation.”

He also admits that his plays “are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns.” So the achievement of this cast and crew in finding enough inner coherence and logic to perform Big Love in a way that provokes and engages its audience, cannot be underestimated.

High quality design elements and production values match the intelligence and excellence of most of the performances. Thus the play is free to stand as a metaphor for international and cross-cultural relationships, as well as traversing the timeless and universal minefield of gender politics. And in its own way Evans and Mee’s bringing together of diverse theatrical elements manifests the message.

Such productions are the only means by which we will ever get to see such large-cast and otherwise non-commercial plays produced to such a standard. Likewise this different and thoroughly worked-through approach to theatre practice brings a welcome frisson to Wellington’s diverse and lively theatre scene.   
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