MFA directing student Desdemona Chiang took on a big challenge when she decided to do Charles Mee’s Big Love as her thesis production. The play includes, among other things, a major fight scene involving 25 people, a nude scene and a scene in which actors make their entrance by rappelling from the ceiling.
But Chiang had no doubts about her choice, which will open Feb. 4 in Meany Studio Theatre after previews Feb. 1 and 3.
“I first encountered this play in 2001, which is when I met the man who is now my fiancé,” Chiang said. “So there was a juxtaposition of love happening in the midst of the horror of 9-11. And that’s really what the play is about — finding connection in the midst of destruction and violence. I’ve wanted to direct it ever since.”
But she wanted to wait for the right opportunity. So when she became part of the MFA program and learned that she would be doing a thesis production that would be fully mounted and supported, she knew the time had come.
“The play has been on my mind and heart for so long,” she said. “I’m happy to have it be the culmination of my work here.”
Big Love is an adaptation of an ancient Greek play by Aeschylus, The Suppliant Maidens, set on the southern coast of modern Italy. It’s the story of 50 brides who flee their 50 grooms and seek refuge with a family at a costal Italian villa. When the villa’s colorful family attempts to convince the brides to capitulate and consent to marry, the brides resist, claiming that they are being forced to marry their cousins by their father and fear for their safety, well-being and happiness.
There won’t really be 50 couples onstage, of course. The 50 are represented by three brides and three grooms, each offering different points of view. One bride is a strident feminist, while her groom is the ultimate misogynist; a second bride is a Cinderella figure who only wants a man to take care of her, and she is betrothed to a man who is none too bright. The third couple represents the happy medium.
But the course of true love never did run smooth. When the head of the villa denies asylum to the brides, mayhem ensues. The grooms arrive by helicopter to take the brides to the ceremony. But unbeknownst to the grooms, the brides have made a pact that immediately following the wedding they will kill their husbands.
“We’re going to have flying dishes and bloody dresses and 16 extras augmenting the principal cast of nine during the fight scene,” Chiang said.
The play is technically challenging. Chiang called in members of the UW Climbing Club to teach her actors rappelling (for when they make their entrance from the helicopter) and a choreographer to help the actresses fling themselves on the floor multiple times without hurting themselves. A wind machine will help create the illusion of a helicopter, while trick swords will produce the “blood.”
Understated, this ain’t.
“Big Love smashes together the two things I love the most about working in the theater — grand visual gestures and shameless expression of emotion,” Chiang said. “While it has serious themes, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and I like that.”
Mee himself described the play in a published interview: “It’s all about refugees and gender wars and men and women trying to find what will get them through the rubble of dysfunctional relationships, and anger and rage and heartache. …You know, unlike so much drama on television, where there’s a small misunderstanding at the top of the hour that you know is going to be resolved before the final commercial break, the Greeks start with matricide, fratricide…”
Because of its themes, the School of Drama cautions that the play is not for children. The nude scene is not an erotic one, however. It consists of a few seconds when one of the brides takes off her dress and jumps into a bathtub. And yes, there will be a real bathtub full of water onstage — just another of the many technical challenges to be overcome.
Which is why the play’s designers (for whom the play is also a thesis production) had their first meeting with Chiang last July. It’s an all-female group — Deanna Zibello, sets; Katie Hegarty, costumes and Lara Wilder, lights — and that seems appropriate, since the play revolves around weddings.
“The play comments on the major wedding industry in this country,” Chiang said. “It contains just about every wedding song you’ve ever heard, and it has this idyllic island setting — the kind that people choose for weddings.”
Chiang also has weddings on her mind in real life, since she’ll be getting married later this year. “This is a play about love, romance and self expression,” she said. “It’s been so much fun to do.”
Tickets for Big Love are $15 for regular performances. UW faculty and staff pay $13, seniors $12 and students $10. Previews are $8 for everyone. Tickets can be purchased from the Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880 and at www.drama.washington.edu. The play runs through Feb. 15.