Monday, February 09, 2015

Big Love

photo: T. Charles Erickson
"There is no such thing as an original play." Those words belong to the playwright Charles Mee, who has spent the better part of the last twenty years proving that, while plots and dialogue and situations in theatre may not be strictly original, what you can do with them certainly can be. (Just look at Shakespeare). Mee calls his effort the (re)making project, and he focuses mostly on harvesting, re-focusing, and re-telling the works of Ancient Greece. One of his earliest efforts, Big Love (2000), is just now receiving its New York premiere, in a superb production by Tina Landau for the Signature Theatre Company.

Mee's foundational text for Big Love is Aeschylus' The Danaids, in which fifty sisters abscond from their grooms (who are also their cousins) on their wedding day. In this revision, the brides sail to modern-day Italy and take up residence at a luxurious seaside villa. Only three of the fifty brides appear on stage: the gentle Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones), who believes in the power of love, if not the duty of forced wedlock; the fiery Thyona (Stacey Sargeant), who views the male sex as a dangerous insurgency and quotes from Valerie Solanus' SCUM Manifesto; and the bewildered Olympia (Libby Winters), whose evident inexperience marks her as a target for the agendas of others. In short succession, their three grooms (played by Bobby Steggert, Ryan-James Hatanaka, and Emmanuel Brown) decamp, and the ensuing hundred minutes is a fantasia on the roles marriage, gender, culture, expectation, and, of course, love play in the formation of society.

Big Love is fun, messy, scary, and often rip-roaringly clever. Like much of Mee's work, it defies neat classifications and doesn't allow for uncomplicated reactions. It feels blazingly original, even though a significant portion of the text is not. It's not a musical, though there are several brilliantly staged musical numbers: Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" becomes a rallying cry against the slavery of arranged marriage; Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up" is achingly performed by Steggert, as the one groom who actually loves his bethrothed; the wedding marches of Mozart, Wagner, and Bach are employed to ironic--and occasionally chilling--perfection. The entire cast--which also includes Broadway stalwarts Christopher Innvar and Ellen Harvey, and the veteran actress Lynn Cohen--is uniformly superb, and the high-octane physical production is dazzling.

Charles Mee can be a polarizing figure. He was previously Signature's Playwright-in-Residence for their 2007-2008 season, and I didn't think much of the three plays that collaboration produced. I went into Big Love with more than a slight air of trepidation, all of which melted away within the first ten minutes. To those who've been turned off my Mee's style in the past, I'll say this: see this production, and go into it with an open mind. You won't be sorry. In the meantime, I've already picked up tickets to see it again--twice.

[Sixth row center, $25]

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