Big Love’s “Stunted” Potential

By Kelly Rudolph, James Madison University

A Trident. Abs. Rose Petals. A Pink Tutu.

All of these seemingly unrelated items joined forces in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s production of Big Love at Hollins University. If the synthesis of these objects doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry: neither did the show.

From the beginning, awkward exchanges and disjointed action communicated that actors did not entirely have a grasp on the story they were telling. For women forced to get married to their cousins against their will, all three sisters had only flashes of passionate speech that prevented any sort of connection with them. Renita Lewis’ Thyona was enthralling as she thrashed and jumped around the stage, but as the fiery feminist of the group she hit a plateau in her energy too soon in the play, leaving her shining moment at the end of the show a little on the tarnished side. The presence of Giuliano (played by Russell E. Alexander II) cheapened the seriousness of scenes like the sisters getting re-dressed for their wedding. While the man can rock a pink petticoat like no other, any feelings of sympathy and horror on the sisters’ behalf were squashed. While Alexander handled Giuliano skillfully, the character itself was just stereotypical, queer comic relief in a show that already had far too many indulgent, gimmicky moments of humor.

Calvin Nielsen’s Constantine was the saving grace of the fractured ensemble, storming the stage with an intensity and drive that left me wishing he’d steal Giuliano’s petticoat and take over the rest of the performance. His monologue was focused and frenetic, raw and restrained all at the same time. His presence was captivating every time he strutted to the stage, provoking his brothers to feed on that energy, especially during their hilarious fight sequence.

The movement incorporated into Big Love, while violent and powerful on its own, was yet another stunt that didn’t thrill. Jones Welsh’s movement direction articulated the rage and love of the characters beautifully, but the insertions of the sequences into the text were clunky and jarring. The sisters’ dance of defiance was bookended by crass humor that weakened the choreography and made yet another sympathetic scene laughable. The brothers’ choreography captured my attention from the get-go with its gripping intensity, but I was bodily wrenched out of the action every time I feared for the actors’ lives. Even a set of abs (or several) couldn’t distract me as I flinched at an actor getting strangled with a flailing chain or leaping near a discarded prop.

The gimmicky moments (like the waterfalls of red rose petals cascading from the proscenium, characters spontaneously breaking out into random pop numbers, and pretty much Giuliano’s entire nonverbal existence) cheapened Mee’s goal for the play stated in the program. He wanted the issues of rape and equality discussed in Aeschylus’ Suppliants to translate to today, and instead those issues were ignored in favor of cheap gags and a “what if we tried this?” mentality. While this approach kept the audience laughing, I took a page out of Giuliano’s ridiculous solo and left the theatre “bothered and bewildered.” As for “bewitched”… not so much.