Expect the Unexpected in “Big Love”

Q & A: SUZANNE AGINS

By Ken Lombardi
Contributing Writer
Published: October 11, 2007

Look out for the eclectic mainstage show, Charles Mee’s “Big Love,” to hit Fordham’s Pope Auditorium.  The play, which opens on Oct. 18, grapples with issues concerning the role of women in society.  The Observer recently sat down for a revealing conversation with Suzanne Agins, the director of “Big Love,” who had a lot to say on Fordham’s biggest autumn theatrical production

THE Observer: Tell me a little bit about the play.

Suzanne Agins: The play is “Big Love” by Charles Mee.  He’s a sort of collagist playwright.  He takes texts from different sources.  The majority of his plays are based on other works.  So this play is a retelling of a story by Aeschylus which, for many, many hundreds of years, was believed to be the earliest remaining Greek tragedy…although recent scholars now think it’s the second-earliest, so I guess now it’s not as cool.  The story is a Greek myth about a king named Danaus who had 50 daughters and he betrothed them to his brother’s sons, who happened to have 50 sons, very convenient!  When it came time to get married, the women decided that they really weren’t down with that. So they fled and came to a city in Greece and asked to be taken in as refugees.  In the story that this play is following, the city officials said that the daughters couldn’t do that and they would have to go out on their own.  So the woman made a pact with each other that on their wedding nights, each bride would kill her husband, which they preceded to do with the exception of one daughter who had fallen in love with her groom.  [“Big Love”] is not set in ancient Greece.  It’s very contemporary. It’s not in verse but it’s following the same general outline of the story.

THE OBSERVER: So, since “Big Love” has a contemporary setting, do the themes from the original Greek story echo our own modern society?

SA: Absolutely, there’s a very explicit parallel in the play to all sorts of people who are fleeing genocides or mass rapes.  We talk about Darfur, and we talk about the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo and Rwanda, that’s actually made quite explicit in the play.  It may seem what we’re talking about is not that bad because it’s about marriage.  But actually what we’re talking about is the institutionalized rape of these women.  So I think the relevance is absolutely still there.

THE OBSERVER: Tell me a little bit about your background and what you had been doing before this production began.

SA: I’m the artistic associate for the Williamstown Theater Festival, a major summer regional theater in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which is in the Berkshires.  We just finished our 53rd summer.  I’ve been there for three years as the artistic associate.  I’m also an adjunct faculty at Princeton University at the theater program there, and a freelance director in New York.

THE OBSERVER: You’re all over the place.

SA: Pretty much.  I live in New York full time.  I go up to Williamstown just ten weeks out of the year.  I’m definitely a New Yorker.  I grew up in New York on 69th Street, right in the neighborhood.  I’m primarily based in New York.

THE OBSERVER: What challenges did you face when bringing this play to the stage.  Did you face any setbacks as a result of the modernization of a classic Greek story?

SA: [“Big Love” writer] Chuck’s  work is deliberately messy and raw, much like life.  The play has moments of beautiful lyricism but it also has some insane movements where people throw themselves to the ground over and over again.  Then they sing a song from the 1950’s.  So it’s deliberately all over the map, which has been a lot of fun to work on.  Every day is like facing a new world.  But we’re just at the point now were we’re starting to put big chunks of the play together.  We run the play in three sections.  This week we’ll see the whole play through from beginning to end.  But I think what happens is that you start to say, ‘Oh my God, what is the tone of this play?’  I worked all these distinct elements but do they actually coalesce into a whole?  Or do I work to actively keep it jarring and keep the audience on their toes.  So those are some of the issues that we’ve been stressed with.

THE OBSERVER: There are definitely different angles that you could take.

SA: Exactly, I feel like the play is deliberately going from A to Z to Q to F, and I feel like that’s important.  I really don’t want to smooth out all those rough corners, I think that’s part of what’s interesting about the piece.  So that’s something we’re working on…not making it feel too easy or too safe.

THE OBSERVER: So has this affected the rehearsal process?

SA: Well, it’s been disjointed.  We work scenes and then I also have a fantastic choreographer.  There were times when I was working on a very realistic type of scene and, in the other room, [choreographer] Ryan is working on having people throw themselves to the ground over and over again.  Or a 50s girl group dance number.  There’s a father dance.  So we’ve collaborated very closely and I would say that I’ve been at a majority of the dance rehearsals as well.  It’s been very odd.  We’ve been hopping around and doing all these different things.  I have to say that the actors have been amazingly resilient at moving from one style to the next with relative ease.  So it’s been crazy.  It’s been a crazy time and it’s a crazy play.  I feel like if our process was not crazy, then we’d be doing something wrong.

THE OBSERVER: What should members of the Fordham community expect when they go to see this play? To laugh, cry, maybe a little bit of both?

SA: I think a little bit of both. I’m really hoping that, at any moment, the audience doesn’t know what will happen next.  And if we can achieve that, then I will feel pretty good about myself and what we’ve accomplished.