I’ve often wondered what or who the American High School Theatre Festival is or are. It seems they bring a bunch of shows and make their home in a single venue, formerly Church Hill Theatre and this year, Central Hall. I was drawn to one of their shows because, like all my Fringe reviews this year, it was longlisted by Amnesty International for the Freedom of Expression Award 2018.
Big Love is an adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Suppliants – a strange choice for a High School Theatre group. It seemed as if this group were trying to punch above their weight, just as the umbrella of the AHSTF may have bitten off more than they can chew. In short, while I might have a lot to say about the play itself, Big Love was an ambitious production which didn’t take into account the limitations of its cast.
The three main female actors entered through the auditorium before the audience had taken their seats, perhaps to portray their rush to escape the fate of being forced to marry their cousins. This is the premise of the original play, although in the Greek drama there are fifty sisters represented as a single Chorus.
In this play, written by Charles Mee, the threesome represents different aspects of the female persona as they explore their reaction to the situation, and their attitudes towards men. Olivia, wanting her cake and eating it, Lydia, more romantic and believing in love, while feisty Fiona is stridently anti-men. The latter is the stronger character and also, the most convincing actor, but all are deeply flawed. As are the men, if not more so.
These young women redeem the production, although they – along with the whole cast – fall foul of a major impediment: the space is too big for them. The stage is huge, and incites more physicality than the young cast have skills for. The temptation to over-act is hampered by the poor direction which has them trying too hard, and neglects a key factor: audibility.
So many lines aren’t heard because in the very large space (the Main Hall is not really a theatre) the young voices have to contend with background music and poor blocking. The set looks messy too, which is a challenge for novice actors learning their stagecraft.
If this sounds harsh, it’s no reflection on the unquestionably admirable effort put in by the young actors. Most Fringe plays last an hour, whereas this was a ninety minute play. An edited version would have helped both the writing and the students.
Nevertheless, this is an interesting modern take on the original, and a good chance for the cast to explore the issues and the skills to present them theatrically.