Theater for The New City
Reviewed by David Miguel Estrada
The Obie Award winning play, "Big Love" by Charles L. Mee recently had its Manhattan premiere at the Theater for the New City, having previously been produced at BAM and Chicago's Goodman Theatre. The Early Stages production was both entertaining and energetic. Using classical Greek themes such as justice, war, and temperance, everything is done on a grand scale. Consequently, "Big Love" is full of big ideas, big dreams, big pursuits, and plenty of sweeping generalizations about the opposite sex.
The story begins in Greece where 50 young women are betrothed to marry 50 young men against their will. For dramatic purposes there are only three couples on-stage representing the fifty;Thyona (Yara Martinez) the leader of the pack, Olympia (Amanda Duarte) the romantic idealist, and Lydia (Vanessa Lozano) the level-headed voice of reason. Lydia and Olympia desire a good man while Thyona simply finds men repulsive, warning her friends against those who appear normal as they "sit there smiling and manufacturing sperm." The women, deciding they need more time to think through marriage, flee the country and seek asylum in Italy where they stumble upon an Italian villa owned by Piero (Jerry Della Stalla). The dispossessed brides-to-be beseech the wealthy landowner to take them in and shelter them against the fiances. Piero reluctantly welcomes them and zany fun ensues.
A helicopter is heard and the grooms materialize in sporty white jumpsuits, led by a cocky Constantine (Marshall York), with the gentle Nikos (Addison Clark McQuigg) and eccentric Oed (Ben Pelteson) beside him. The jumpsuits were so outlandishly loud the guys seemed to have wandered off the movie set of "Grease" or "Jackass". The lusty couple Leo (Eric Forand) and Eleanor (Nell Gwynn), consistently work themselves into lewd positions throughout the play, while effortlessly inserting the phrase "la dolce vita" into any and all conversations. (The theatrically maligned Italians who are often represented as overly lascivious are perfect instruments to hawk temperance, which ancient Greeks extolled as one of the most important virtues of all.) The grooms soon force the brides to agree to marry but what they don't know is that Thyona immediately leads them into a bloody pact.
Jeff Willis' direction of the play is most often an adrenaline rush. The wedding party scene is impressively directed, with chaotically crashing music juxtaposed with loads of orgiastic activity on-stage. Paradoxically, this moment of utter discord becomes an awe-inspiring moment of pure harmony, with every actor in complete connection to each other.
Amanda Duarte is delightful as the ingratiating Olympia. Her eyes light up with wonderment when presents arrive for the brides and she is hilarious when she animatedly explains her fascination with submission. Yara Martinez is convincing as the bloviating Thyona, but after effectively flailing and groping her way through her rants she displayed a self-conscious fidgetiness.
The graceful Vanessa Lozano is remarkable as Lydia. She imbues the character with a hidden pathos that captures a woman's intense longing for companionship. The actress was completely engrossing. In repose, she ntimates a fiery restlessness, that comes to heavenly fruition in her eloquently spoken speeches.
Marshall York is brilliant as the cocky Constantine. He skillfully lets loose with an onslaught of testosterone-induced energy as he rails against the female sex. The gifted actor exudes volatility, all the while displaying a keen mastery of Mee's text.
David Stallings is very good as Piero's gay nephew, Guiliano. Stallings shines during the Roger and Hammerstein inspired number "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" singing in impeccable cabaret form to Chris Alonzo's excellent accompaniment.
Nell Gwynn is amazingly engrossing as Eleanor, a character with nympho tendencies. She is obviously born to be on stage. Eric Forand is very good as a the Marcello Mastroianni-inspired character of Leo, dancing sexily with a hilarious dead-pan delivery normally reserved for Saturday Night Live.
The charming Addison Clark McQuigg plays Nikos with an endearing vulnerability. Strong performances were also given by Marietta LaFarge who enthusiastically played Bella, Jerry Della Stalla, who portrayed Piero debonairly, and Ben Pelteson who made the best of the sparsely written character of Oed.
Cameron Anderson's set was stunning, comprised mostly of a large sand pit and an impressive staircase. (Although the noise made when people stepped up or down the staircase proved to be a practical problem when it drowned out some of the text.) Costume design by Mattie Ullrich was smoothly refined and wedding-appropriate. Ruth Pitzer's rich lighting design was dominated by dark sumptuous hues that helped simulate a blood bath more than any fake blood could.
Overall the set, lighting, and costume design helped create a lush Mediterranean sensibility.
How relevant a play like this is during a time of war. "Big Love", which ironically was written long before September 11th, is a timeless lesson that people are all made up the same way, no matter what sex, color, or creed. Wonderfully written, "Big Love" is Ancient Greek wisdom repackaged for the 21st century.
Big Love played from February 27-March 14 at Theater for the New City at 155 First Ave. in Manhattan's East Village in New York. You may contact David Miguel Estrada at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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