, Salem, MA

October 18, 2012

Theater of extremes

'Big Love' adapts Aeschylus for a modern audience at Salem State

By Will Broaddus Staff writer
The Salem News

---- — SALEM — As its name implies, “Big Love” by Charles Mee is a play with a sense of scale.

That was a challenge for director Kate Amory, who had to figure out how to stage it in the 80-seat Callan Studio Theatre at Salem State University.

“To keep finding ways to authentically embody this poetry was the biggest challenge,” Amory said.

Based on “The Suppliants” (463 B.C.) by Aeschylus, the story follows 50 brides, granddaughters of Zeus, who are trying to escape an arranged marriage to 50 of their cousins in Egypt.

In Mee’s version, six brides come ashore on an Italian beach, which the production invokes using 400 gallons of water and 500 pounds of sand.

“There’s a giant pool of water on the stage,” Amory said. “They fall into the water. It’s very non-naturalistic.”

But it is mostly by using an intensely physical style of acting that the production creates a sense of the epic.

“It’s very extreme,” Amory said. “They’re flying through the air and slamming themselves on the floor. The play calls for it. There are scenes where the women are so outraged, they start flinging themselves on the floor.”

Amory, an assistant professor of theater and speech communication at Salem State, has trained at the Trapeze School New York and specialized for 30 years in roles that combine the skills of an actor and an acrobatic aerialist. She drew on this background as she collaborated with students on finding original ways to tell the story.

The intense, physical gestures express issues of personal choice and freedom, which stand in conflict with social and cultural obligations.

“The words fail them, are no longer enough to contain their frustration, outrage and longing,” Amory said, “and it erupts into a more abstract but physical world.

“The chorus of women in an ancient Greek play would create that scope of extreme response through the rhythmic speaking. In our production, (it is created by) the extreme physicality. It erupts out of their bodies,” she said.

This range of feeling points to “the largeness that humanity can encapsulate,” Amory said, and helps make ancient theater popular with her drama students and with audiences today.

Stories written by contemporary playwrights are, by contrast, often intimate, Amory said, exploring the inner lives and psychological motivations of a few characters, within a narrow range of experience.

“Some of the more popular writing isn’t leading with major issues, in a way that perhaps Tony Kushner dealt with 20 years ago in ‘Angels in America,’” she said. “Now there’s this swing around to looking at some of the larger stories and mythology.”

By allowing students to tap into larger emotions and meaningful themes, she believes, classical drama helps them channel their energies and enlarge their sense of self.

“I find they soak it up,” she said. “I think it’s the universality of the stories and archetypal characters. There’s a longing for a connection to something larger and more universal.”

Those connections aren’t available, for the young especially, in the mainstream media culture.

“This generation — they find it hard to find their voice. They’re all about updating their status in the third person, but expressing their feelings in their own voice is difficult. The way it’s set up on Facebook, it’s not an ‘I’ statement.”

Other aspects of the play, beginning with its language, have been adapted to make Aeschylus’ ancient script more relevant to contemporary audiences.

“It’s a very contemporary adaptation, very loosely adapted,” Amory said. “Mee’s taken the original mythology and created a contemporary, postmodern version of the story.”

Just as he has re-created the original story, Mee encourages theater companies to make their own adaptations of his script. But Amory feels there’s a genius to what he’s written that she wanted to preserve.

“It’s a combination of the very poetic images he uses and then the writing itself,” she said. “The punctuation is used very carefully and instructs and informs the actor how to speak the text.”

This is the second classical drama Amory has collaborated on at Salem State — she staged an original adaptation of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” in “Ghosts of Troy” in 2011 — and she thinks audiences enjoy them as much as the actors.

“I think Chuck is finding a way to take that ancient Greek experience and translate it into something a contemporary audience can relate to viscerally,” she said.