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50 Brides for 50 Cousins: Strawdog's 'Big Love' Introduces Mee to Someone New -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Big Love
a play by Charles L. Mee
Strawdog Theatre Company, Chicago
Thru May 25

Whenever I travel, I always appreciate--and often heed--when a friend says something like:

"I have a cousin who runs a store in (so and so). You should check it out."


"There's an awesome ice cream place over near (place). Try to get to it."

While I enjoy talking to locals and, certainly, eating great ice cream, following suggestions like the above tends to be most fulfilling simply for taking me off the beaten path.

What I discover along the way is often more gratifying than tourbook recommendations, and may even be better than the acute reason for taking the diversion.

This isn't a perfect analogy or explanation for why I saw Big Love at Chicago's intimate Strawdog Theatre on Friday night, but definitely has some relevance.

Although I see loads of theater of all kinds and levels, at venues large and small in Chicago, the suburbs and beyond, I doubt I would have much noticed, let alone seen, the play by Charles L. Mee had a friend not been in the ensemble (and one I'd only recently reconnected with at that).

But I'm glad I did.

And not just because it afforded me the pleasant opportunity to see my friend both onstage and off.

I'll let Wikipedia provide an overview of Big Love author Charles L. Mee, and defer to the Chicago Tribune review by Kerry Reid for a bigger picture assessment of this production.

In fact, it's only because of Reid that I'm aware that the play is "Mee's takeoff on Aeschylus' The Suppliant Women."

Though I was not heretofore familiar with Mee, or even beyond the name, Strawdog Theatre Company, I genuinely enjoyed Big Love for a variety of reasons, including not in the least, pure entertainment value. 

The show centers around 50 sisters who flee Greece for Italy in order to avoid a mass forced marriage to their 50 cousins, whose prior excursion to America has added to their loutishness; they too wind up in Italy.

As performed in Strawdog's intimate second floor space at 3829 N. Broadway, this cast of Big Love includes only 12 brides and 12 grooms--unless I've miscounted--with most of the action revolving around three of each.

Stacy Stoltz, Michaela Petro and Sarah Goeden excellently embody the primary brides-to-be; defiant but wistful Lydia, seething yet self-aware Thyona and unapologetically romantic Olympia. They are matched, and to some extent paralleled, by Nikos (John Ferrick), Constantine (Shane Kenyon) and Oed (Kyle A. Gibson).

Other than to reveal that upon arriving in Italy, the runaway brides seek refuge with the help of heretofore unknown locals Giuliano (Paul Fagen), Piero (John Henry Roberts) and Bella (Cheryl Roy), I think it best to leave the details for you to discover, even if merely through freely reading Big Love on Mee's website.

While the format and composition of Big Love leans toward the unique compared to most plays I see and enjoy, it was neither too abstract nor avant garde to digest comfortably.

The fine acting, from the core characters through the entire ensemble, makes the drama pleasurable to watch over 95 minutes, as very much does the accompaniment of pianist Dane Halvorson, who performs a variety of love songs before, throughout and at the end of the show. And while this isn't to be confused with a musical, an offbeat vocal rendition of "Call Me Maybe" and a P.A.-pumping "Highway to Hell"--among other anachronistic choices--infuse Matt Hawkins' production with imagination, charm and verve reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann movies.

Though I wouldn't really venture to guess the meaning Mee was intending for me to derive from the narrative--which I understand director Hawkins to have adjusted a bit--I appreciate the way it caused me to think about how love, marriage, freedom, choice and/or the lack thereof intersect in various societies, including our own.

Given that Big Love premiered in 2000, I can't surmise if Mee was reflecting on any specific cultures that keep women subservient, those in which arranged marriages are the norm (to happy and unhappy outcomes), places in which love among cousins isn't considered icky and/or the much-in-today's-news (to me, non-) issue of gay marriage, but I can see how Big Love can take on different shapes and colors when viewed through one's own prism. 

If nothing else, it's yet another excellent example of the type of skill and dedication regularly and impressively on display at storefront venues (and the like) throughout Chicago--in Strawdog's case for 25 seasons now.

Especially with low-priced tickets available for most performances through HotTix, even if I only fortuitously stumbled upon it myself, I'm happy to suggest that Big Love is well worth your time and affection.

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