The curtain rises November 8 at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center on a play that explores frank themes, like arranged marriages and sexual abuse.
But “Big Love,” adapted from a play by Aeschylus, is as much a romp as a rant.
Director Tazewell Thompson is a Visiting Professor at Dartmouth this semester. He began a recent rehearsal with a scene he called “the pact.” Three brides stand in a row, face the audience, and make a shocking agreement.
‘We have a pact then. Not one groom will live past his wedding night. Are we agreed?” asks one bride.
“Yes,” the other two reply, a little tentatively.
That’s a pretty radical way for a group of Greek brides who are fleeing forced marriages to get out of matrimony. But it’s the plot line for “Big Love.” And director Thompson says it’s a perfect choice for a liberal arts college where young people are still shaping their identities and their sexual behaviors.
“And you come to Dartmouth, which is so perfect for this play, and it’s a play of ideas and it’s a play of gender politics and it’s a play that is so urgently relevant today because women are still sort of forced to take their place, still,” he said.
But, Thompson points out, men, too, can be enslaved by social stereotyping—which is why he loves this speech—he calls it an aria--by one of the ill-fated grooms, played by Joshua Echibiri.
“People think it’s hard to be a woman. But it’s not easy to be a man. The expectations people have, that man should be a civilized person. Of course, I think everyone should be civilized, men and women both, but when push comes to shove, say you have bad people invading your country, raping your own wives and daughters and now this happens all the time, all around the world, then a person wants a man, who can defend his home,” the actor laments.
So, this play seems to ask, what is less civilized? Entrapping brides against their wishes? Or, if you are those brides, doing something even more radical to escape that fate?
Diane Chen plays Theona in “Big Love.”
“Theona is a unrelenting spitfire of a militant feminist and she’s a tough one, she doesn’t like men, which is a travesty, and I have really, really enjoyed exploring her mindset this term,” Chen said in the green room.
Theona’s murderous mindset, Chen said, is unthinkable in her own life, yet it comes to seem quite rational to the character she portrays.
But that character does have to convince her Lydia and Olympia, her Greek-American sisters, played here by Rachel Decker-Sadowski and Veronica Burt, to attack their would-be captors, as in this scene:
Lydia: “But not all men are necessarily the same. Sometimes you can hear the whole man in just his voice, how deep it is and how frightened, where it stops to think and how complex and supple and sure it is.
Olympia: “You can hear the strength in it and you can know that you’re safe”
Theona: “The male –the male is a biological accident, an incomplete female, the product of a damaged gene, a half-dead lump of flesh trapped in a twilight zone between apes and humans, always looking obsessively for some woman.”
Theona wins the argument in the end, and the fighting begins.
Director Tazewell Thompson brought in a choreographer to teach women how to safely assault men on stage. It’s like a slow motion ballet, as each man falls to the stage floor and the women ultimately stand beside them, triumphant.
“You go to the theater and you can see people in conflict people hating each other on stage, people throwing each other around, people abusing each other on stage. Do it in the theater, watch it in the darkened theater on a lighted stage, don’t do it outside the theater,” Thompson admonished.
He hopes this provocative production will shine its footlights on the problem of sexual assault, which has been happening at Dartmouth, among other schools. But he also hopes that the comic moments—and there are many in this musical play—will give the audience something to laugh at, and to think about, after the curtain falls. The play runs at the Hopkins Center November 8,9,10, 14, 15, 16, and 17.