The Pittsburgh Playhouse’s adaptation of Big Love wrestles with relationship language the same way that the 470 BC tragedy Aeschylus’ The Suppliants did.
Big Love is a very smart but daring play – it takes one of the earliest tragedies of the Western World and applies it to the world today, adding gender politics, love (in so many different forms), domestic violence, refugee status, woman’s rights, race relations, equal protection under the law, empathy, compassion, rage, heartache, death and much more. Two things must occur to make this play “work” – emotional language and physicality.
How does director Reginald Douglas move this tragedy forward with humor/comic relief? It’s the responsibility of an extremely energetic brood of actors to make sure the audience doesn’t leave confused and understands the play’s implications.
The three sisters, Lydia (Markia Nicole Smith), Olympia (Saige Smith), and Thyona (Amber Jones) and the three cousin suitors, Nikos (Nate Wiley), Oed (Charlie Rowell), and Constantine (Drew Campbell-Amberg) make up the center of the experiment of the complications of arranged marriage, translated more to the experiment of how to elude oppression. It’s really up to these six characters to make the audience feel the intensity of all of those emotions listed above, again, through their real attachments to one another and to their “causes.”
Their relationships to the audience in this drama are important, particularly that of Thyona (Jones). Thyona is the “glue” that holds the sisters together. It is Thyona who sways her sisters to stick firm to the fact that they are not going to be forced to marry their cousins. Jones acts throughout the play as the chorus, uttering dynamic soliloquies reminding the audience of the truth of what is occurring on the stage. It is Thyona who plans the mass murder of the suitors on their wedding night.
The defiant Thyona stands up against forced oppression rather than being suppliant to the whims and needs of the soon to be husbands. Jones delivers her role throughout the tragedy as “THE angry young woman.” As far as stage dynamics are concerned, it is Jones who delivers; Jones who clenches her fists; Jones who demands relevance.
She is Big Love’s version of Antigone – willing to kill or be killed for her beliefs. And she delivers in this role. Sitting only rows from center stage, I felt that her anger was real, not contrived, not melodramatic. Clenching her fists in what appeared to be real rage demonstrated to the audience that she believed what she was saying.
At times, however, for comic relief, Thyona, Olympia, and Lydia take on a hilarious 3 Stooges-like performance (breaking dishes and planters while singing Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”) and other antics. Lydia and Olympia play the roles of young girls undereducated to their fate. This is where Olympia and Lydia play the foil to Thyona. Thyona quickly quells their needs for gaiety and companionship.
But a special place in this work has to be held for the performance of Bebe Tabickman in the role of Bella – instantly connecting with the audience portraying a true Nonnino, comparing her 13 sons to a basket of tomatoes which is so humorous that to explain her actions would not do justice to her acting ability. Her initial scene endears her to the audience, and Tabickman has just the right demeanor and accent to be a believable strong Italian woman.
She appears throughout the play, however, acting more the “fool” than the voice of wisdom, but tragedies have fools, and we know it is the fool who often times speaks the truth. At the end of the work, it is Tabickman who explains the tragedy of what just happened on stage. She ends the play with a voice of reason and wit. She is the true chorus that would, I am sure, have made Aeschylus proud, cleaning up the horrific murder scene with her words of truth and reason.
The fact that she moves from a comic figure to such a serious interpreter of the play is interesting to say the least and in keeping with the tragedy. She shouts to the audience that “love trumps everything” after she has scolded all of the actors for their childish and murderous behavior. She reminds the audience that no one is innocent. Like Thyona, she is not only speaking to the characters in the play, she is speaking to us, the audience. She is the wise sage. The laughable, kind character becomes an extremely angry matriarch, literally shaking as she gives her final chorus and warning to the audience.
The remainder of the cast include Giuliano (Gabriel Florintino) who portrays Bella’s gay grandson, Piero (Mel Holley) is the owner of the home in Italy where the sisters land in their escape from Greece, and Leo and Eleanor (Adam Rossi and Marisa Scott), a married couple who are friends of Piero and who assist the maidens prepare for their nuptials and act as those “regular people” who get caught up in the crossfire of a tragedy. They are the “us” in the play – the observers who accidentally are caught in the cross hairs of futility, anger, and death.
The fact that the actors and Douglas received a standing ovation is proof that the “experiment” worked. Kudos also must go to Gianni Downs who designed a beautiful set which reminds one of a bright, sunny Italian countryside villa, a fitting setting for such a thought-provoking drama.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets. Big Love runs through March 12, tickets and more information can be found here.
Photo credit: John Altdorfer