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5th Wall's Big Love tackles gender relations and human proclivities

Nuance in the Noise

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Located across from a bustling Planet Fitness in an otherwise deserted Citadel Mall, 5th Wall Productions is a black box space with some major verve. So much, in fact, that there appears to be a hole in the wall, caused by an actor very much embracing his role.

5th Wall artistic director Blair Cadden acknowledges the physical damage as part of the process. "It is written to be a piece, as the playwright describes, where the physical action is just as important as the words," says Cadden of the company's latest production, Big Love. "So you know, not so much in the sense that you have choreography in a musical but more in the sense that there are these more abstracted things going on that sort of take on their own meaning."

Playwright Charles Mee's Big Love is timely as hell, with ancient roots and an evergreen sheen — gender roles and power inequities are nothing new. A modern remake of Aeschylus' The Danaids, Big Love tells the story of 50 brides who flee arranged marriages with 50 grooms — the sons of their father's twin brother, yikes — they have no interest in marrying.

The brides not-to-be — only three brides and grooms are actually in the play, tiny space, but the presence of the others is implied — end up in a villa on the Italian coast, and the grooms catch up with them. "All hell breaks loose," says Cadden.

And by hell she means death, and lots of it. Only one couple survives. That's not a spoiler, though, assures Cadden, "It's kind of how we get there that's the fun part."

The violence and drama of Big Love is to be expected from a piece inspired by an ancient Greek production, but the phsyicality is not just included to evoke that sense of classic tragic theater. "It's got beautiful language and then there are these moments where the language just falls away and it explodes into this crazy physical free-for-all. That sort of tackles it on a totally different, more gut level."

At one point during rehearsal, Cadden says the brides were in the middle of a scene where they were ranting and raving against the men who claimed they were "theirs" and Cadden says she told them "'I want you to all stop and just scream... I was listening to something on the radio the other day and all I wanted to do was just scream at my radio, no words. And I said 'why not let them do that?' It's not typically acceptable in society to have these primal screams in public but in the theater you get to do that."

The primal screams are in response to the unwanted advances of the grooms, who, says Cadden, "display the sort of toxic masculinity that lends itself to a culture where men think they're entitled to demand that women marry them or more to our own culture to demand that women go out with them or whatever else with them." In the midst of the #MeToo reckoning, this ancient tale feels all too prescient. "It plays out in this really visceral physical way that it's a little bit startling and it's very off-putting but it's also I think very expressive of what's really beneath that sort of attitude and putting it in the actor's body instead of just in their words."

Cadden says the play explores how "we as humans can be passionate and throw a tantrum and you can also have a very sweet tender moment." The two are not mutually exclusive. "I think one of the messages [of the play] is that we all contain those multitudes."

The play falls under 5th Wall's fourth season mission of "No Apologies." And it's premiering right before Valentine's Day. So one may assume that walking out of the theater, you'd be ready to swear off love and perhaps the opposite sex for the forseeable future. But Big Love is many things, including a love story.

"There's this secondary plot of 'what does it take to make a relationship work in this sort of toxic society that we live in?'" says Cadden. "You know what does it take to find that equality and balance and mutual respect that a relationship actually does require."

Cadden says we aren't left with any certainty about what will become of the one living couple, but at the end we do reach a point Cadden says is best summed up in one line: "There's a beautiful speech at the end of the play actually that the grandmother character gives and she says, 'You know the greatest of all human qualities is sympathy."

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