Here comes the bloodshed

Television shows like Bridezillas and Whose Wedding is it Anyway? do a good job of capturing the drama of one wedding with one bride at the helm, so you can imagine the kind of chaos inherent in a ceremony featuring five brides, 10 brides, or even more. The University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre’s aptly named Big Love takes things to the extreme, telling the story of 50 reluctant brides and their 50 eager grooms. What results is an entertaining and surprisingly morbid performance, calling into question the sanctity of marriage.

The brainchild of playwright Charles L. Mee, Big Love is a modernization of Aeschylus’s The Supplicants; like the original, Big Love follows its 50 heroines as they flee from Greece to Italy in an attempt to avoid a trip down the aisle. The brides are all sisters, collectively opposed to an agreement their father signed years ago, which obliges the ladies to marry their 50 cousins. In Italy, the brides throw themselves upon the mercy of a wealthy family (basically, the first dock their boat encounters), begging for protection from their cousins, who are after them. All of the action takes place on their wedding day — the intended one, anyway — so throughout the show we see the girls wearing various white outfits and the men in tuxedos.

Of course, 50 brides and 50 grooms on stage would be a little bit excessive. In Big Love, the two parties are represented by three women and three men, each portraying a stereotype of his or her gender. Exemplifying the angry, man-eating woman is Thyona (Brittany Andrews), an independent, militant bride, ironically betrothed to Constantine (Parag S. Gohel), a misogynist if there ever was one. Thyona’s sister Olympia (Elizabeth Gardner) represents the opposite end of the spectrum, with curly blonde locks, a ditzy demeanor, and the desire to be taken care of by a man — still, she would prefer a man of her choosing. Olympia is engaged to Oedipus (Steward Savage), who goes by “Ed,” a Neanderthal-type character who understands little, except that he wants to get married. Balancing out the polar-opposite sisters is Lydia (Kaitlyn Wittig), the levelheaded voice of reason; Nikos (Allen Clark), her husband-to-be, serves the same function for his two brothers.

These six characters interact with an only slightly less-zany cast of Italian oddballs. The owner of the stumbled-upon manor is Piero (Ryan Howe), who is willing to help the brides as long as his efforts don’t hurt himself or his family. Piero lives with his mother, Bella (Lauren Ann Diesch), who has grown wise after mothering nearly a dozen boys. Rounding out the story is the lovably flamboyant Giuliano (John Graham), whose comically exaggerated gestures and mannerisms help to offset the show’s darker themes.

And Big Love is dark. All foreshadowing aside, all you have to do is look at the cover of the program to realize that the story ends in bloodshed; on the cover (and, eventually, on stage), we see a bloody groom lying dead on the ground. The murderous turn of events begins when the brides realize that Piero will not be able to help them evade their marital contract and, in desperation, make plans to kill their grooms after the wedding. This is, of course, Thyona’s idea — she wouldn’t be a very good militant feminist otherwise, would she?

The acting, costume design, and direction of Pitt’s Big Love serve to amplify an already-intriguing story. Andrews excels as the over-the-top Thyona, while Gardner captures Olympia’s air-headed personality, reeling herself in to avoid creating a caricature. Lydia, too, manages to portray her character’s relative sanity without fading into the background. The brothers are each perfectly cast, coming off as hilarious (Savage, as Ed), sweet (Clark, as Nikos), and terrifying (Gohel, as Constantine) — clearly in line with what the playwright originally intended. Additionally, Graham (playing Giuliano) and two entertaining houseguests (played by Grant Williams and Emily Simpson) surpass the realm of comic relief, often stealing the show. Dancers Lily Junker and Mark Chaitin also contribute to the action, embodying the words and feelings of the other characters as subtly visible silhouettes.
Assisting the acting, the characters’ costumes help to define and embolden each of the roles. The Italians, for example, are united in their purple garb, a theme we eventually see extend to the grooms’ corsages. As mentioned earlier, the brides’ wardrobes are white throughout, but each outfit still manages to perfectly match its character; in the beginning of the play, we see the aggressive Thyona in a men’s white button-down, the prissy Olympia in cool capri pants and ballet flats, and the down-to-earth Lydia in a minimal tank top. Later, when they change into their wedding dresses, these three sport empowering vinyl, girly ruffles, and classic simplicity, respectively.

What unites all of these elements is the play’s directing, executed by Melissa Rynn Porterfield. Porterfield takes skillful advantage of comedic timing, dealing with both dialogue and the silhouetted dancers. One the play’s most memorable moments is when the three brides perform a passionate, almost tribal dance expressing their conflicting feelings toward the opposite sex; the grooms later mimic this performance, griping about the pressures of manhood. Both extremely satisfying, the male and female dances are the work of choreographer Lily Junker. If anything, Big Love only suffers from an overwhelming amount of action, as the words and movements of three or more characters at a time are often hard to take in, especially in the Heymann Theatre’s intimate setting.