She Said: “Love Trumps All”—Or Does It? BIG LOVE at Villanova

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Villanova Theatre continues their current season with a production of Charles L. Mee’s provocative BIG LOVE. Directed by Villanova Professor—and Barrymore Award-winner—Harriet Power, BIG LOVE runs on the stage in Vasey Hall from November 11—23, 2014.

Mee is known for a Picasso-like approach to playwriting and theatre; he takes found texts and classics and turns them on their ear, twisting and molding them into a new and surprising theatrical event. BIG LOVE is no exception. Based on “The Suppliant Women” by Aeschylus, Mee’s wryly comic piece had its debut at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville in 2000. It tells the story of fifty sisters who flee from marriages arranged by their father to Greek-American cousins. (“Do you see what happens when Americans want something?”) The girls aren’t in love with their chosen spouses, so they commandeer the family yacht and end up at a villa in Italy—which they mistake for a hotel. The owner of the property, Piero, reluctantly offers them “asylum”, but when the grooms show up all bets are off.

Though “The Suppliant Women” is the oldest surviving play from ancient Greece, Mee’s version is planted firmly in modern times, including references to the internet. BIG LOVE asks the big questions, raising the issue of gender politics, domestic violence and women’s rights—all still very weighty and timely issues. Its 95—100 minutes are jam packed. Mee stated in a 2003 interview that he wanted to see “if it still spoke to the moment, and of course it does. It’s all about refugees and gender wars and men and women trying to find what will get them through the rubble of dysfunctional relationships, and anger and rage and heartache…” So many thoughts ran through my mind as I watched the story play out.

As a woman who came of age in an era of brave battles for women’s rights, it has been frightening to watch the current political climate that wants to roll things back to a time when such things as arranged marriages would be acceptable again. Moreover, women would once again be marginalized, considered possessions. It was a bit disconcerting to see such important ideals made fodder for humor…

Don’t get me wrong, though. Yes, the play is full of humor and whimsy, but Power and her talented cast do a bang-up job of telling their tale—and often humor is the best way to get your point across. Every moment in BIG LOVE is fully realized, every bit of physical business (and there’s a lot!) is well thought out and beautifully executed as the ensemble delivers nuanced performances of very real, very flawed human beings.

Leading the troupe as the three main sisters are Sophia Barrett as Lydia (whose name means “of the noble kind”), Meghan Winch as Olympia (“home of the gods”) and Hallie Martenson as Thyona (“inspire frenzy or excite”). Each lady lives up to those meanings. Barrett does a beautiful job of elucidating a young woman torn between her loyalty to her sisters and an underlying sensitivity she sees in her betrothed Nikos (Mitchell Bloom gives a terrific turn in the role); Winch is equal parts flirt, fashionista and dreamer; she makes the most of the comedic opportunities this role offers—without devolving into caricature. And Martenson is a powerhouse of feminist frustration; she explodes onstage as she rages against the injustices done to her gender.

Their male counterparts are the aforementioned Bloom as Nikos (whose character’s name means “victory of the people”), Zachary Shery as Oed (literal meaning “swollen foot,” but whose traits include being a free thinker) and Kyle Fennie as Constantine (“not changing” impulsive, has fits of anger). Nikos is the only one of the men who does achieve “victory”—he gets his girl by being honest and showing his vulnerabilities along with his strength. Bloom’s scene with Barrett is so sweetly played. Shery’s Oed is well performed also—a perfect foil for Winch; he makes a strong debut on the Villanova stage. Fennie’s Constantine is fascinating; he goes toe-to-toe with Martenson and commands the stage wonderfully. He does a masterful job with a complex—and frightening–speech wherein Constantine is talking about the mixed messages boys/men get regarding violence.

Kyle Fennie (Constantine) and Mitchell Bloom (Nikos) star as brothers in BIG LOVE, on stage thru Nov. 23 at Villanova Theatre. (Photo credit: Paola Nogueras)

Guest Artist Ahren Potratz is splendid as Piero, owner of the villa where the sisters seek refuge. His innate ability to play with the phrasing of the lines is terrific. And he clearly shows us a man trying to do the right thing. As his doting mother, Bella, Meg Trelease is hilarious, just all out fun to watch. Right down to the body language, she makes you believe she is an elderly Italian woman. Trelease excels as she imparts the wisdom of a woman who has overcome many of love’s challenges. Stephen Tornetta shines as Piero’s gay nephew Giuliano, who can’t resist dolling himself up for the wedding. Tornetta is funny and touching as he delivers some of the best insights into gender roles—and following one’s heart.

There are two guests at the villa as well. Megan Rose is great as the uptight British matron cutting lose with an Italian lover. And Sam Henderson hits all the right notes as that aging gigolo. Rounding out the cast are John Baxter, Elise D’Avella, John Hala, Luke Hensley, Alix Rosenfeld, Julia Salvo, Jaclyn Siegel, Christopher Sun and Samantha Thompson as the Ensemble of Brides and Grooms. Well done one and all.

The technical side was equally strong. Daniel P. Boylen’s set is a feast for the eyes; a unique mix of contemporary elements with classical art works, it instantly tells the viewer “You’re in for something unusual here.” Rosemarie McKelvey’s costumes serve as nice editorial comments on each character—and congrats on coming up with such wonderfully varied and beautiful wedding dresses! John Stovicek’s soundscape and Jerrold R. Forsyth’s lighting punctuate the proceedings perfectly. Sarah Sanford really put the cast through their paces with her intriguing movement work that is so integral to the piece, and Neill Hartley has done topnotch dialect coaching—everyone sounds authentically Italian.

BIG LOVE is an intelligent and funny piece of contemporary theatre and Power’s production is solid from top to bottom. It’s not for everyone—there is strong language and adult situations. But, my companion and I were captivated and fully engaged throughout the performance. If you like to be challenged while you’re entertained, head to Villanova before the 23rd.

by Charles L. Mee
Based on “The Suppliant Women” by Aeschylus
Directed by Harriet Power
November 11—23, 2014
Villanova Theatre-Vasey Hall
800 Lancaster Avenue @ Ithan Avenue
Villanova, Pa 19085


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