Almost a year ago, the future of City College of San Francisco’s theater arts program was in jeopardy. As part of a proposed layoff that would’ve gutted the faculty and deferred the dreams of dozens of theater students, many instructors and students believed the spring performance would be their last at the community college.
Now, following an infusion of funding, the college’s thespians are back on stage with an avant-garde adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Suppliants. Updated with a full White Lotus treatment, Big Love premieres this weekend at Z Space in the Mission.
According to City College instructor Patricia Miller, the cast and crew are out to prove that classical theater transcends time and space. The cohort has taken one of the oldest known Greek tragedies—believed to have been first staged in 468 BCE—and sublimated it into a wickedly dark comedy that toys with gender politics and delves into the messy reality of love, loss and domestic violence, all with a Gen Z glow-up.
Big Love is Charles Mee’s 2000 avant-garde adaptation of the Ancient Greek original (also called The Suppliant Women or The Suppliant Maidens). In Miller’s words, it follows the “matrimony, mayhem and murder” that ensue when 50 brides liberate themselves from 50 grooms, stealing away to an extravagant Italian villa. The jilted would-be husbands follow, but suffice it to say, not everyone makes it out of the Italian countryside alive.
Directed by Miller—one of the instructors who was initially given a pink slip during the 2022 layoffs—the production gives a cheeky nod to the HBO megahit The White Lotus, staged in a palazzo that recalls the sumptuous, sun-dappled show’s second season.
“It’s exactly like The White Lotus,” she said. “You’re laughing until you stop laughing.”
Raised and trained in the U.K., Miller has been a professional director, acting coach and instructor for 30 years and has also taught locally at UC Berkeley and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. She told The Standard that this adaptation of Aeschylus meets her students where they are.
“It’s exciting to do a classic from 2,000 years ago that’s extremely radically contemporary and students can relate to now,” Miller said.
Dwan Benton, an Oakland-based actor, plays Nikos, a groom who wants his bride to have her own free will.
“It’s been very fun,” he said. “Nikos is like me in the sense that we’re very misunderstood in certain ways. We’re just trying to make sense of things, but it doesn’t always come across.”
The production serves as the capstone project for City College’s performance training program. Now signed with a talent agency, Benton is bound for the American Conservatory Theater in Union Square next year.
Miller feels the play is a coup for City College’s theater arts program after she and her colleagues spent long hours camping out to protest the layoffs.
“This department is a phoenix,” she said. “Many students hit a dead end in their course of study. That the whole program was able to revive is quite a triumph.”
With many City College students working part- or full-time jobs while completing their coursework, Miller added that her cohort has risen to the caliber of professional stage actors.
“They’re not spending their time sitting on lawns drinking chardonnay,” she said. “These students do all of this while serving coffee, or doing eyebrows, or driving for Lyft.”
Big Love makes its City College premiere at independent theater Z Space on Florida Street for three performances on Friday evening, Saturday evening and a final matinee performance on Sunday afternoon.
Though Miller described Big Love as darkly funny, she explained that the underlying themes are also weighty, likening the gender violence portrayed in the play to former President Donald Trump’s taped comments about molesting women that were obtained by the Washington Post in 2016.
“As fun as it is, it’s also very serious,” she said. “It shows refugees, patriarchal oppression and sexism with lots of modern connections.”
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