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Big Love — Villanova Theatre at Vasey

untitled (140)Two musical interludes that had nothing to do with the plot count as my favorite moments in the Villanova production of “Big Love” at Vasey Theatre.

The first is a casual, totally gratuitous instance when Stephen Tornetta, playing Giuliano, the aloof gay scion of a rich Italian family, heads to an upstage left piano and takes a few minutes to sweetly croon the opening verses of Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” apparently for the sheer pleasure of it.

Tornetta, relaxed and amusing throughout “Big Love,” seems to sing in response to all the strange events occurring on the terrace of his uncle’s seaside villa that has been invaded by 50 brides from Greece who have escaped from 50 men from America who have caught up with them and intend to proceed with the scheduled nuptials.

The 100 people in the wedding party are all cousins who have been promised to each other by contract since their infancy. The group is represented by seven of the couples in Charles L. Mee’s whirl of a play, though only three of the pairs matter to the show’s primary scenes.

The other bit of music that made me smile was played solely in the background. It was a slow, Montovani-like arrangement of Cyndi Lauper’s pop hit, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and its inclusion by “Big Love” director Harriet Power and sound designer John Stovicek is so brilliantly loopy, I reveled in every second it could be heard on Stovicek’s generally clever track to Mee’s show.

Concentration on unimportant musical choices could be taken to indicate I didn’t find much else to attend to in “Big Love.”

Not true. Mee is given to writing long speeches, some of which contain accumulated wisdom and are worth the listen. Also, there are lines in “Big Love” that are genuinely funny while the situation it presents is one you want to see worked out. Giuliano’s family is asked to mediate between the insistent men and the reluctant woman, and Mee has some high dudgeon up his sleeve as “Big Love” unfolds.

Mee takes his basic text from Aeschylus’s ancient Greek play, “The Supplicants,” and uses his dialogue to have his characters discuss everything from love and gender differences to strategic ploys and forced sex. The women don’t want to wed their intended mates and flee from Greece on a yacht to find refuge, in this case from Giuliano’s grandmother, Bella, and uncle, Piero, who have a large estate. The men are no slouches. They hunt their brides down by helicopter and threaten to swoop down and pluck them right from Piero’s terrace, or from the harbor.

The woman are unwilling to marry because they don’t know, and therefore can’t love, the men. The men take more of a “bird in the hand” attitude and are committed to holding the woman to their fathers’ contract that the cousins should marry.

Piero is an unwilling judge, but when supplicants supplicate, what recourse does one have? Especially with his mother taking some pity on the women and plying them from advice from her own experience. Giuliano is amused by the whole business. A couple visiting Piero, Leo, an Italian, and Eleanor, his British wife, are also entertained by what looks to be a stalemate on their hosts’ terrace. They talk to some of the men and some of the women to get the gist of things and to ascertain their individual attitudes.

Mee likes to keep things frothy, but his plot and dialogue are a mixed bag. When characters are discussing or explaining things directly, some interesting stances and opinions are heard. When either the men or the women are declaiming and protesting and trying to rally troops around one idea or another, “Big Love” becomes tiresome. This is especially the case when members of the groups talk at once or try to yell above one another. It’s also annoying when, in two sequences that are famous in “Big Love,” the men and women, on separate occasions, throw themselves on the stage in paroxysms of anger and disgust at the their situation. The woman are miffed that they are expected to wed. The men are livid that the women won’t succumb meekly to the bargain they knew demanded their marriages.

The Villanova production tends to blow hot and cold depending on how lively things are within Mee’s play. It’s as if it can’t sustain interest unless something of particular importance is happening on stage.

I know it would be nice to believe everything included in a play has pith, but in “Big Love,” that would not be accurate. People of either gender running around screaming or throwing themselves violently on the ground is just plain histrionic, heady drama for drama’s sake. Perhaps these scenes could be funny. I’m sure they’re meant to be. Perhaps they can represent the amazing passion to which humans are heir. At Villanova, they’re just stage business and make you worry more about an actor hurting him- or herself than they impress you with any depth of emotion the characters are longing to express.

Mee is a gamesman. He’d like to persuade you the overwrought, or the bizarre, is entertaining. But he can’t. On the Villanova stage, the bizarre is just the bizarre, and I wasn’t interested in seeing talented performers like Mitchell Bloom or Meghan Winch sacrifice their limbs while acting out mock agony or exasperation.

The Villanova production takes a while to get started. Watching Tornetta’s Giuliano lounge about Piero’s patio was engaging, but when he leaves and Sophia Barrett’s Lydia comes on stage, half dead and half distracted, we become curious as to why she screams as she tears off her wedding dress and jumps for solace into what should be a pool but at Villanova is, whimsically, a bath tub where Giuliano thinks he finds her three-quarters dead and tries to revives her. Yet the scene doesn’t register much more than curiosity. It makes you wonder what’s going on, but it doesn’t engage you.

Lydia is not really close to death. She is fatigued from her flight from Greece and the weariness of evading her groom and finding a place of sanctuary where the men cannot impinge on her.

Lydia’s story seems to take forever in the telling, but Giuliano eventually understands and goes to acquaint his uncle and grandmother about their needy guest.

Meanwhile, Lydia’s sisters, Thyona and Olympia, come ashore from the yacht and find her relaxing in her slip. They also strip down, and two things happen, one good, one tedious.

The good thing is contrast. You hear the sisters speak, and you glean their various objections to marriage and their attitudes towards men and love. Lydia is the most neutral. She has no problem with being married some day, but, being a modern woman, albeit in an ancient Greek situation, she doesn’t want her father deciding her husband via a contract agreed upon in her childhood. She wants to marry for love and choose the man with whom she could be linked for life. Olympia seems less experienced, but men interest her. She takes Lydia’s point of view and bewails her father’s temerity in pledging her to someone she did not select, but she is also a bit man-hungry and eager to be attracted and, possibly, wed in due course, sooner being better than later and both of them being preferable to “now.” She even casts her eyes on the gay Giuliano.

Thyona is the rebel, the warrior among the group. She doesn’t come out and say she is Lesbian, but she rails against men, all men. Katherine, Shakespeare’s shrew, could not be more thorough in her disdain for the male sex. Thyona rants against hairiness, against men’s arrogance, against the idea of going to bed with one, let alone having intercourse with one. Thyona is all opposition to the prospect of marriage and to the notion that she would want to spend one minute in the clutches of the swine she regards all humans of masculine gender to be.

Thyona protests too much. Not in the way Gertrude means when she comments on the Player Queen fawning over her husband. In going on and on, and on and on, about men and their despicable bodies, breaths, genitals, and manners.

Thyona is Mee in high gear, and while Hallie Martenson is serious about her several dozen calumnies and presents them well, the sequence is too much and runs out of steam long before it runs out of loud and angrily expressed dialogue. Martenson plays her part with gusto, but Thyona wears out her welcome. Enough already! We get it. You don’t like men and equate them with rutting barn animals. Fine!

Mee seems to like everything in neat symmetric sets, so the cycle is repeated when the men come ashore, everything from self-revelation and flinging oneself to the floor to one character shouting down the premises about the ingratitude and nerve of a woman who would not thank Zeus and all so powerful to be contracted to him as a husband.

Nikos, played by Mitchell Bloom, is actually refreshing. He joins his brother, Kyle Fennie’s Constantine, in denigrating women and excoriating his stubborn cousins, but he reveals he has looked forward to this wedding day because he sincerely loves his cousin, Lydia, and has throughout their youth. For Nikos, marriage to Lydia on any terms is the answer to a wish, a long-held desire. He hopes he has the opportunity to inform Lydia of this and persuade her to be his wife.

Oed, played by Zachary Shery, is the most noncommittal of all. He is indifferent to the whole process. He resents the women’s refusal to satisfy him and his brothers, but he is not keen on marrying yet and can take or leave whoever is intended for him. If the woman agree, he marries. If they don’t, he curses their frailty, but he goes on doing as he pleases, married or not. And he follows Constantine’s lead, totally on board or not.

Constantine has Thyona’s role and goes on ad infinitum talking about what he’s going to do if the women remain recalcitrant and won’t go through with the wedding.

Piero and his household are, meanwhile, in a quandary about whether to back the men or the women in this situation. Everyone would be happy to mind his or her own business and stay away from the dilemma. Alas, they can’t, and Piero and family waver about the right thing to do since they are being forced to do something.

Sounds like a lot going on, doesn’t it? Well, there is a lot to be decided, but Mee’s play is not as exciting or engaging as his plot. He leaves a lot of dry patches and others that smack of the theatrical overkill I mentioned earlier.

Power’s production at Villanova works best when matters quiet down and people speak simply and directly. It’s then that you know what is on someone’s mind or in his or her heart. These calmer moments have the effect of a soothing but interesting conversation. They compel you to listen because the exchange of ideas is either humorous or telling. Longer summations, like Piero’s long speech towards the conclusion of the play, can also garner rapt attention.

Most of the play is bickering, the woman carping at the men or vice versa, the women or men carping at each other because they are in unity about their anger but not always about their attitude towards the opposite sex or a specific member of it, e.g. Nikos’s attraction towards Lydia. Teeth-gnashing and expressing angst is Mee’s idea of drama even if, at Villanova, intimate scenes play the best.

Some characters have an odd idea about constitutes betrayal, and Thyona is particularly disdainful when one of her sisters fails to comply with a tactic all 50 agreed upon.

“Big Love” is often more mildly diverting than it is entertaining. The scope of the story holds interest, but Mee is playwright who enjoys uproar and going overboard. Passages that indulge in either of these become tedious fast and take away from the flow of Power’s staging. Early scenes among the women and the time before “Big Love’s” most dramatic scene, can be especially without reward.

Mitchell Bloom proves play after play that he is a fine and versatile actor. As Nikos, he displays the quiet infatuation that makes all he says about Lydia plausible. While Nikos is willing to go along with any plan Constantine decides, he is consistent in his feelings for his bride and wonders why she does not see nor share his ardor.

Kyle Fennie is relentless as Constantine. Although betrothed to Thyona, who truly hates him and can barely pretend to cordiality when they are together, he persists in demanding a wedding. Fennie finds the gruffness in Constantine. He’s the guy at a bar who will attempt lies and tricks, and even drugs, to score a girl he wants, and he takes mighty umbrage when thwarted in his designs. Fennie is strong and unwavering, good traits for his character.

Hallie Martenson is also commanding. Thyona is more than disgusted that her father would peddle her off to her cousin in a legal document. Thyona will never be as accepting of Constantine as he is of her. She will make sure he pays for insisting she consent to be his bride.

Meghan Winch has a knack for natural behavior and natural line readings within a character. She makes Olympia interesting because she retains hope for romantic love and is hopeful she found it with her cousin Oed who appeals to Olympia when she is alone with him and uninfluenced by Thyona or Lydia. Winch’s bewilderment following “Big Love’s” climax is conveyed beautifully. She looks like a woman who never dreamed of doing something so obvious and admirable as something Lydia did when she realized she cared for Nikos.

Sophia Barrett reacts nicely as Lydia is taken aback by Nikos’s protestations of affection and knows a union between the two of them would please many. Barrett plays the character that has explain her sisters’ situation, and she does a fine job in a series of complex scenes.

Zachary Shery is puppylike as Oed, belligerent in his agreement with Constantine yet finding the prospect of marrying and living with Olympia promisingly enticing.

Stephen Tornetta radiates sweet agreeability as Giuliano, who is fortunate to have the family and money to live independently and be fully gay and out. Giuliano likes the excitement of the standoff between the men and woman but also worries about the damage that might be caused by having so many refugees living on his grandmother’s property .

Ahren Potratz shows sound judgment and gives sage advice as Piero. Meg Trealease speaks her mind as Giuliano’s grandmother who is not aware when she is saying something that may be presumptuous or that raises the hackles of Thyona and other feminists among her family. Megan Rose is charming as the inquisitive Eleanor. Sam Henderson is solid as her husband, Leo.

Rosemarie McKelvey must have had a field day designing a bridal costume for 50 to wear. There’s plenty of white on the Villa nova stage. Daniel Boylen’s set, bath tub and all, makes you want to find yourself stranded on a terrace in Italy.

“Big Love” run through Sunday, November 23, at Villanova’s Vasey Theatre, Lancaster Pike near Ithan Street, in Villanova, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $21 and can be obtained by calling 610-519-7474 and by visiting www.villanovatheatre.org.

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