The Amherst College theater and dance department celebrated Valentine’s Day in an unorthodox way this past weekend. Theater and dance major Lauren Carter ’17 performed her senior acting thesis, Charles Mee’s “Big Love,” last Thursday through Saturday in Holden Theater. Directed by department professor Yagil Eliraz, “Big Love” follows three sisters who flee their home country to escape arranged marriages to three men. They ultimately take refuge in an Italian villa, where they convince its wealthy homeowner to take them in, despite his reservations toward refugees. The sisters’ would-be grooms eventually track them down, and through the sisters’ efforts to avoid marriage and the men’s efforts to marry, each characters’ perspectives on love, gender dynamics and justice are revealed.
As far as set design goes, “Big Love” was one of most ambitious shows that Amherst has done in the last few years. The show defied the rules of conventional staging by making the entire room the set. All of Holden Theater was painted bright pink and decorated with dozens of white balloons, while tuxedoes and white wedding dresses hung from the ceiling. The show used its set dynamically, lowering the tuxes and dresses at certain points, while the cast played with the balloons at other moments. The constantly moving set pieces gave the actors freedom to make the show as kinetic as possible. There are many monologues in the show, but the actors made these moments engaging by interacting with the props, sometimes in a sexual and violent manner. Some of the main props included a microphone, which the characters used whenever they entered a passionate monologue, and a tall purple couch shaped like a penis, on which each of the characters sit when reflecting on questions of wealth and gender dynamics. Through the festive set, complete with a piano, a swing and TVs that show media clips at some points in the play, “Big Love” shows that theater can be vast and energetic.
The cast was large and colorful, and all the actors clearly enjoyed their roles. Carter played Thyona, the sister who is most radically feminist, with a bitter and resolute nature. Clad in a black tank top and a loose demeanor, Carter portrayed a woman who has lost faith in society to protect her body and has resolved to protect it by any means necessary.
Unsurprisingly, she is the one who eventually leads the revolution against the men. Since this is her thesis, this role gives Carter ample space to display her acting range. The other two sisters are Olympia, the most stereotypically feminine and submissive, played by Maki Ybarra Young ’20, and Lydia, the mediator of the three, played by Noor Qasim ’18. Young played Olympia with youthful romanticism and lust while Qasim played Lydia with an intelligence and reasonableness, though the latter starts to crumble when confronted with harsh aspects of the men she encounters. Qasim also employed a rather sarcastic edge when interacting with her would-be partner, a relationship that leads to comedic moments.
As for the male characters, they follow the same pattern on the ideological spectrum as the women. There is Constantine, played by Denzel Wood ’18, partner of Thyona and an extreme misogynist. Wood dressed in a modern sports jacket, baseball cap and sunglasses, and infused Constantine with a scary passion for his abhorrent beliefs. His misogynistic rants truly never failed to take the air out of the room. There is Nikos, played by Benjamin Kissinger ’19, the partner of Lydia that longs for a real connection between them. Nikos is by far the most decent of the men but still clueless on how to build a proper relationship through respect and communication. I suspect many single people in the audience would regard him as relatable. Finally, there is Oed, played by Brett Sokol ’19, the chain-smoking oddball whose idiosyncrasies almost defy description. Oed’s motivations are not at all clear, but Sokol played up his idiocy and crudeness in a way that put more discomfort into the play’s already awkwardly sexual tone. There are other characters, such as Piero, the villa owner, played by Wesley Guimaraes dos Santos ’19 in his fourth main stage production at Amherst, Bella, mother of Piero played by veteran actor Barbara Cotez-Greig, and Giuliano, Bella’s gay grandson, played by Michael Barnett ’18. The cast is as large and colorful as the set, and they all gave funny, creative performances.
“Big Love” is a fitting name. because the characters either love with every fiber of their being or not at all. This can cause some audience members to feel disoriented due to the frantic pace of the dialogue and chaotic nature of the monologues, but it is truly an acting thesis because much of the art revolves around the actors playing up their parts and playing around the set as if it were a playground. It often feels as though the set were an actor itself. However, this is to say nothing of the content of the play’s script.
The characters interrogate the very concept of love in a world where there is no justice and equality for women — a world much like our own, making audience members reevaluate their conception of love. Despite what the bright pink stage might have you believe, the play is ultimately unromantic. The play explores, through the three sisters, different ways to live under oppression and whether love is possible under such conditions. Olympia chooses to submit and see the good side to the men, Lydia is more skeptical but chooses to appeal to the good nature of those in power, while Thyona chooses militant resistance. The same is true for the men: they range from truly reprehensible, with Constantine, to somewhat understandable, like Nikos. Indeed, one of the true strengths of the play is that it clearly puts forth the perspectives and ideologies of each of the characters. By the end of the play, the audience empathizes with every one of them, even if some of them are beyond sympathy.
Oftentimes in contemporary theater, actors remain static and attempt performances that are overly psychological or narcissistic. “Big Love” is a refreshing change of pace in that it treats the stage like a playground, while also unequivocally and grandiosely delivering ideological viewpoints in the hopes of raising awareness toward these topics. Although the play does not provide many answers to the philosophical questions that it raises about love, justice and moral responsibility toward refugees, it does make these themes hyper-visible and didactic, which works to the benefit of the actors’ performances. For those that were looking for a romantic story to escape into on Valentine’s Day, “Big Love” may not have been the show for you. Instead, “Big Love” delivered a creative, energetic and joyously chaotic theater experience.