Big Love by Charles Mee
AFI Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
June 17, July 21, 2002
Reviewed by Susan Joseph
Taking its starting point from Aeschylus's Suppliants, Charles Mee's Big Love, directed by Howard Shalwitz, with choreography by Karen Bradley, was the final production of the adventurous Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's 2001-2002 season in the intimate black-box AFI theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In Big Love Mee combines ancient and very current material to question how the modern institution of marriage relates to abiding concepts of friendship, chaste love, romantic love, sensuality, and, finally, forgiveness.
The Suppliants, the first and only surviving play in Aeschylus's tetralogy on the story of the fifty Danaid maidens whose father Danaus promised them in marriage to their fifty Egyptian cousins, is the perfect model for examining marriage as a commercial undertaking organized by fathers, husbands, and brothers for their own benefit. Whereas Aeschylus's Libyan maidens gave no specific reasons for refusing or accepting marriage arranged by their father with their Egyptian cousins, Mee's modern Greek maids overflow with arguments from the virulent lesbian feminists, love gurus, and American advertising. Mee reworks The Suppliants and the three plays preserved only fragmentarily as a four-part dramatic sequence so that the action of Big Love follows the order of Aeschylus's four plays. Big Love begins with the Danaids' arrival and supplication (The Suppliants); in the second sequence the Egyptian cousins arrive and present their counter arguments (The Egyptians). The third sequence reenacts The Danaids, which captured the imagination of Ovid, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Salieri, Rodin, Sargent, and Brancusi: when the Danaids are refused protection and forced into marriage with their cousins, they take the law into their own hands: all but one of the sisters slaughter their intended husbands. Mee expands Aphrodite's fragmentary panagyric to love and fertility from the concluding satyr play Amymone into a trial scene that ends in forgiveness and love for all.
Big Love starts with the Danaids' flight from their homeland. Mee eliminates the role of the Danaids' father Danaus and moves a greatly expanded household of King Pelasgus (Piero) from civilized Greece to the sybaritic Italy of travel writer Lisa Saint Aubin de Téran. The surreal new setting is the forecourt of Piero's crumbling castle-hotel, a padded bathroom cell under a dazzling azure sky whose yellow sunflower sun is reflected in a red sunflower that warms a comfortable soaking tub. Rather than presenting the Danaids as Aeschylus had, as a chorus with a single voice, Mee created three female characters who articulate their differing attitudes towards men and marriage: optimism of Leo Buscaglia (Lydia), virulence of Andy Warhol's murderess-wannabee Valerie Solanas (Thyona), and the ideals of ninth-century Chinese courtesan Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book (Olympia).
Playwright Mee and the Woolly Mammoth's virtuoso cast and creative crew recreate a total theatre experience similar to Aeschylus's Danaid trilogy and satyr play. Lacking ancient poetry, dancing, and rhetoric, Big Love is Greek tragedy reborn as contemporary American culture: confessional poetry, gymnastic routines, popular dance rhythms, Bach, Mozart, Cole Porter, you name it. Lydia arrives first, to the finale of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, swanlike, from her boat, takes off her red and purple net wedding dress and plunges into the soaking tub. The naked Lydia is greeted by Giuliano, a masked Dionysian transdresser in Barbie-style stiletto heels who pipes an obbligato gay man's version of love throughout the play. After Lydia dries off and puts on her slip, her sisters Thyona and Olympia struggle onstage dragging their hope chest. The three girls hurl their wedding gifts to the wings as they rip through Leslie Gore's pop classic, "You don't need me."
Led by fascist Constantine, the girls' Greek-American cousins, sensitive Nikos and wishy-washy Oed, arrive by helicopter like Marines storming a Vietnamese beach. The play progresses as a series of orchestrated skirmishes with trusting Lydia, angry Thyona, and shallow Olympia battling their own feelings, each other, and their suitors. Three other characters all associated with love, Piero's mother Bella and a couple of elderly English lovers, try charmingly and ineffectively to soothe the seething girls. Nikos wins Lydia over by gently asking if they can get to know each other better by going on a date. Finally denied asylum by Piero, the three girls resolve to kill their fiancés, and all but lovely Lydia go through with the grisly action as they make love with their husbands for the first time. Bella absconds with justice, condemning her son Piero for not protecting the girls, praising Lydia for preferring love, and forgiving Thyona and Olympia who had been pushed into a corner. After their wedding dance is over, Lydia and Nikos are left on a darkened stage, awkward and uncertain.
The cast were first rate, from the tenderness of Nikos and Lydia, to the vehemence of Thyona and Constantine, and general goofiness of all the others. The Woolly's was the first local production of Big Love since this appealing play originated at the Humana Festival for New Plays in Louisville, Kentucky, and toured the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Chicago's Goodman Theatre, Austin's Rude Mechanicals, Berkeley Rep, and Seattle's Contemporary Theatre. The Dallas Theatre Center will mount a production, February-March, 2003. The Suppliants is infrequently performed. Roumanian director Silviu Purcarete's Busby-Berkeley extravaganza (see Steve Wilmer's article in Didaskalia Vol. 3. Issue 3) for the 1996 Avignon Festival kept the 50 brides and 50 brothers in a bricolage of past and present. James Kerr's 1998 production at London's Gate Theatre had a chorus of 15 and more restrained and consistent tone. With its brash and probing rehash of American cultural icons Big Love is art for our age of mechanical reproduction, for, unlike the more unique work of Purcarete and Kerr, Big Love makes a virtue of popular expression.
The script of Big Love and Mee's modern sources are available at: http://www.charlesmee.org/html/big_love.html
Susan Joseph, Ph.D.
Catholic University of America