Friday, July 31, 2009

Statement: Producing the Play

Textual Problems
Big Love operates much like a musical comedy in that it interweaves spoken scenes, song and musical interludes, and choreographed movements. How to make these three different formats work equally well poses the first main challenge in that it greatly affects casting of the roles of the brides, grooms, and Giuliano. A corresponding challenge is whether the director should tackle all three areas or enlist the aid of a musical director and choreographer. Age appropriateness particularly affects the casting of Bella as does Mee’s suggestion for double casting Bella/Eleanor and Piero/Leo. The dialogue clearly indicates that there are an additional 47 brides and 47 grooms to be married; how many are actually included depends on each production’s resources, particularly given that each bridal couple appears in formal wear (and for only this one scene at the end of the play). Performance space poses numerous challenges in that actors must be able to tumble and roll on the floor as well as get it wet (from the bathtub) and sticky nasty (with Bella’s splattered tomatoes early in the play and with all the fake blood and pulverized cake during the wedding massacre). Mee's stage directions indicate that Lydia gets naked and takes a bath (in the filled tub onstage) and that the three first grooms arrive overhead via helicopter accompanied by tremendous wind.

Contextual Problems
As a Raven Rep slot in the Showcase Theatre, our production will face limited financial and spatial resources. If we have three additional couples (instead of 47), then we end up with 12 people in formal wear getting married along with 3-5 guests—15-18 total actors in the Showcase who must also be able to “dance” the wedding massacre. The small acting space also makes the “sticky nasty” scenes difficult for staging and cleanup, and the closeness of the audience could turn the whole performance into something resembling a Gallagher show (the audience has to sit under plastic to avoid the splattered watermelons!). Regarding the number of “triple threats” required by the casting, we will be competing for talent with only one musical (not two as during the fall semester) and one less student-directed slot. Given the physical hazards of the tumbling sequences and the wedding massacre, I think funds should be requested for a workshop with a fight director.

Other Productions' Solutions
Most of the productions employed fight directors and/or choreographers to help with the acrobatic and often dangerous staging. At the University of Washington, the school's rappelling team was brought in to train the grooms how to land on stage. UT Austin went the opposite direction and allowed its bridal couples (all MFA actors) to improvise their fight choreography. Berkeley Rep covered its thrust stage with pink wrestling mats to help soften the actors' fall, while Columbia University seemed to exacerbate the situation by turning the stage floor into a huge sandbox. Some productions (namely the original and subsequent versions directed by Les Waters) employed Mee's double casting for Bella/Eleanor and Piero/Leo, although most others split the roles. The University of Washington had the largest supplemental cast with 7 additional brides and as many additional grooms, while Dallas Theatre Center reduced each by one. Production photos clearly indicate non-traditional casting when regarding race and ethnicity, particularly for the brides and grooms, but no apparent employment of disabled actors in this inescapably physical play.

The Critics Respond
The central issue noted by most of the critics stemmed from the relationship between the text (which is itself an assemblage of pre-existing texts just adapted by Mee) and the staging (both that suggested by Mee's stage directions as well as individual production choices). The issue is, basically, how much is too much? The original director (Les Waters) was both praised and damned for his over-the-top staging when it finally reached (in its fourth incarnation) the Big Apple. Similarly, how big characters might be played concerned some reviewers, who felt that, no matter how outrageous the characters might act, they still must preserve their core humanity. Other reviewers negatively noted the incongruous halting of the action posed by the inclusion of the many, often lengthy, pop culture moments, particularly the two songs; still others welcomed the theatricality as a way of offsetting the long-winded and didactic monologues. Few questioned or discounted the playfulness and sheer fun of the live experience.

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