What happens when you combine one of the most acclaimed writers of the 21st century, one of Austin’s best up-and-coming theatre companies, and the directorial prowess of one of Austin’s top theatre critics? You can see for yourself when you visit the Long Center to take in the wonder that is Shrewd Production’s Big Love. Based upon The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Charles Mee’s Big Love follows a group of sisters on the run from their cousins, to whom they have been contractually required to marry, who take try to take refuge in a gorgeous villa in Italy. Like any Mee play, it sits in a strange area in between genres, with characters constantly breaking into musical numbers, spitting jokes, but still pulling our heartstrings, as these sisters try to outsmart or outrun the men who try to hold them sway. With such diverse motifs and tones, in the wrong hands the play can (and has, in past production), become a muddled mess, but luckily director, actor, and respected theatre critic Robert Faires has just the panache needed to orchestrate this heavy symphony, pulling in some of the best talents in town to bring to life this colorful piece.
The play is a tug of war between tenderness and toughness, and the three leads on each side follow suit, and do so with undeniable skill. Julianna Elizabeth Wright explodes across the stage every time she opens her mouth as the aggressive, sassy Thyona, spitting fire with every syllable, making her ire almost palpable. In any other piece the performer may be seen a bit one note, but Wright is able to show the pathos behind her rage, creating a subtle anger that’s heartbreaking to witness. On the other side of the coin is Andrea Smith as Olympia, whose simple, shy demeanor is completely endearing, the very picture of obedience and submission, a sweetheart only looking to find her perfect man. Stuck between these two extremes is Shannon Grounds as Lydia. Grounds shows herself to be a bold performer, appearing first on stage in the nude, and that vulnerability continues throughout the piece, as she becomes a woman stuck with her hands in both worlds, an angry young woman looking for revenge, but also finding a real connection with her suitor, Nikos. It may not shows off Grounds’ unique talents to their upmost, but Lydia is another fine piece of work from an actress on her way to the top.
On the male side of things, the trio of grooms do their best to keep pace with the ladies, and for the most part they succeed. Aaron Alexander in particular does fine work as Nikos, potential groom of Grounds’ Lydia. Alexander has shown a talent for playing characters which are able to mix roughness and softness, and he’s never done so better than here. Though he can rage and roar with the best of his brothers in the more action-oriented scenes, he also can shed his armor and touch at the more emotional core of the character in the intimate scenes he shares with Grounds. Its hard not to smile as you see the two of them dancing at the end of the first act, romance overcoming all else. Rommel Sulit is also in top form here, as the rough and violent Constantine, fiance of Wright’s Thyona. Though at first it may seem that the part gives him very little room to explore the dimensions of his character, Sulit suddenly comes out, near middle of the piece, to perform one of the most amazing soliloquies I’ve heard in years. He injects more dynamism and rawness into one block of text than you would even expect was possible. Nathaniel Osborn does fine as the goofy and childlike Oed, pumping up the slapstick whenever he gets the chance, but sadly the part gives him little to do, and most of the time he fades to the background to allow Sulit or Alexander to take center stage.
With a name like Faires behind the production, one knows that the piece is bound to draw in artistic talent, and this is not more obvious than with the production team. Ia Enstera returns once again, after creating stunning sets for both Imagine That’s Down the Drain and Breaking String and Penfold Theatre’s co-production of Ghosts, to give audience a massive, dazzling world. Full of glass windows, soaring columns, barren trees, and swimming pools, helping to pull the audience into the unique world of the play. With such a massive set, however, it can be difficult to find intimacy in some of the more romantic or emotional scenes, but Lighting Designer Patrick Anthony cleverly uses spots and colored gels to create a smaller space for the characters, allowing the rest of the space to fade as the audience is turned towards the couples. His use of color also helps in the more action packed scenes, as his splashes of greens and oranges and reds help to accelerate the action into higher gear and gets the audience’s hearts pumping.
Big Love is playing at the Long Center’s Rollins Stage through November 27th, so be sure to get your tickets today for this dazzling and complex piece of theatrical wonderment. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit Shrewd Productions website at shrewdproductions.com.