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'Big Love' a weird, wonderful time

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UMaine School of Performing Arts presents challenging piece

ORONO Marriage and mayhem have taken the stage in a major way at the University of Maine.

The School of Performing Arts is presenting 'Big Love,' a play by Charles Mee adapted from the ancient Greek play 'The Suppliant Women' by Aeschylus, at Hauck Auditorium on the UMaine campus. The show directed by Tom Mikotowicz runs through Oct. 30.

It's the story of 50 sisters who have fled Greece, refusing to marry their 50 cousins as decreed by their father. They cross the seas to Italy in hopes of finding refuge, a place of sanctuary where they can make their own decisions regarding the paths their lives might take. However, their cousins follow, seeking to claim what they believe to be rightfully theirs.

Lydia (Katie Dube) has made her way from Greece in an effort to escape her arranged marriage to Nikos (Fenton Cummings). She lands in Italy and winds up inside a stately home; there, she is discovered by Guiliano (Nathan Reeves), nephew to the estate's owner, a wealthy Italian gentleman named Piero (Noah Frie). She is joined by two of her sisters the fiery Thyona (Nicole Felix) and the starry-eyed Olympia (Mackenzie Peacock) as they beg Piero and his family for asylum while the rest of their sisters await word onboard their ship.

But their erstwhile husbands have not let a mere ocean stand in their way. Nikos, along with his brothers Constantine (Reed Davis) and Oed (William Krason), has tracked his bride-to-be to Piero's estate. The sisters reluctantly give Piero permission to negotiate with the brothers on their behalf, but it seems that compromise isn't likely to be in the cards.

And so Thyona hatches a plot of her own; one that, while unconventional, ensures that the sisters will not have to marry. But even as the sisters agree to Thyona's mad plan, Lydia finds herself growing closer to Nikos and wondering if perhaps marrying him wouldn't be so bad after all. However, once events are set in motion, there's no turning back no matter how much you might want to.

My affection for academic theater is well-documented; the energy and daring inherent to both the student actors and the chosen scripts tend to make for interesting, challenging productions. And while the relative inexperience of the performers can make for ensembles that are a bit uneven, the passion and joy that young actors bring to the stage tends to balance the scales. The freedom granted by a college campus can often result in shows that are unconventional and unexpected.

So it is with 'Big Love.'

Postmodern ideas tend to bring the best out of Mikotowicz as a director; he has a passion for experimentation and a willingness to lean into the absurd. Mee's work allows ample opportunity for both. 'Big Love' blends early theatrical ideas with modern sensibilities while throwing a pop culture-savvy aesthetic into the mix. The narrative is punctuated with over-the-top dance sequences set to a contemporary pop soundtrack, using cultural touchstones to punctuate the story's key moments. It's messy and loud and broad and incredibly compelling.

The ensemble is a big one. It's also a young group, but that lack of experience is only occasionally apparent. In truth, the largest obstacle to making a show like this one work is finding a way to get the cast to collectively buy in; committing to the weird and unusual is tough for any actor, let alone a relative newcomer. But in that respect, this crew is successful across the board.

The trio of sisters sit at the story's center; their performances are the foundation of the show. Dube is the one who does the heaviest lifting; her portrayal of Lydia is grounded and sincere, with an energy that shapes the dynamic of her fellow performers. Felix is fire-and-brimstone feminism personified as Thyona, loud and brash. The ideological clashes between her and her sisters are particularly engaging. And Peacock's bubbly bubble-head take on Olympia is great fun, with a goofy grin and sweet demeanor that contrasts nicely with some of the story's darker moments.

Cummings does good work as the confused romantic Nikos, conveying an unsureness as to just what it is that he truly wants. Davis practically vibrates with self-aggrandizing misogyny, while Krason makes Oed the most fittingly off-putting of dimwits. Reeves is wonderfully unselfconscious, going full camp-and-vamp, and Taylor Cronin steals a couple of scenes as a thickly-accented matriarch who is sharper than she lets on. There are a fair number of shining ensemble moments invasions and chases and dance numbers appear in abundance. There's plenty in the way of physical comedy as well.

A unique aspect of this production is the orientation of the stage; that is, the audience is up there too, sitting on risers that create an interesting thrust-type performance space. Obviously, that creates an entirely different design dynamic one embraced by the production team. Scenic designer Dan Bilodeau does great work in creating a viable playing space while still staying true to the minimalism inherent to the concept. Lighting designer Jamie Grant and costume designer Jonna Klaiber do a solid job in complimenting the aesthetic as well. Nicole Felix also served as the dance choreographer, while Andrew Silver choreographed the fight work their contributions lend an engaging depth to the production as a whole.

'Big Love' is a weird little enigma of a play. It is complex and unusual and generally kind of bizarre. It's also energetic, thoughtful and quirkily funny, with layers of slapstick and thematic meaning. You're not likely to get many chances to see anything like it; it's worth making the trip to Orono to see for yourself.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:31

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