by: Carol Rocamora
In a time of tight budgets and small-cast, one-set shows, Charles Mee’s extravagant imagination is a breath of fresh theatrical air.
Mee is a playwright who dares to think big – and I mean BIG – as evidenced in Big Love, now being given a dazzling production at Signature Theatre Center. He’s a playwright who draws frequently from the deep well of Ancient Greek mythology – this time, adapting the story of the Danaids, the fifty daughters of Danaus unwillingly betrothed to the fifty sons of Aegyptus. All but one of these enraged protofeminists retaliate by murdering their husbands on their wedding night.
Miraculously, Mee tells his tale with only three brides and three grooms (plus a supporting cast of five)– and yet, thanks to director Tina Landau’s broad theatrical brushstrokes, you feel the force of the full one hundred.
Mee’s playful version begins on an empty stage, with nothing but a stunning backdrop of the Mediterranean sky and sea. The three brides arrive on Italian shores, one by one, wearing dusty wedding gowns, sneakers, and carrying heaps of Vuitton luggage, having left their dreaded husbands at the altar. They take refuge with Giuliano, a sympathetic nobleman who promises them protection, even after the grooms parachute down from the sky (in aviator gear) and demand that the ceremony take place.
The rest of the story offers a lively dialectic on love and the sexes, with each sister posing a different point of view, as the pressure upon them mounts. The uncompromising Thyona (a fierce Stacey Sargeant) is the staunchest holdout, proclaiming hatred of marriage (“The male is a biological accident, trapped between apes and humans.”). Lydia (an earnest Rebecca Naomi Jones), in contrast, holds out hope for connubial bliss (“True love has no conditions”), while Olympia, the conventional sister (a naive Libby Winters), is torn, still dreaming of “a Caribbean honeymoon.”
A parallel debate is offered by the three grooms about the challenges of being male. “People think it’s hard to be a woman? It’s hard to be man!” says Constantine, the lead groom. We also hear from Giuliano’s mother Bella (a droll Lynn Cohen) and her other (gay) son, Piero, who philosophize about love and marriage. (“If I Could Find Him, The Right Kind of Man”, sings Piero longingly).
The joy of the production lies in Tina Landau’s wildly expressionistic, exuberant direction. The trio of brides and grooms proclaim their points of view while hurling themselves against the sidewalls, turning somersaults and performing breathtaking acrobatics. The stage is alive with dancing, leaping, and writhing, while pop love songs like “You Don’t Own Me”, “I Wish You Love “ and “Bad” blast over the loudspeakers. It’s a three-ring circus, staged on Brett J. Banakis’s stunning set. The shimmering seaview backdrop is flanked by sleek white walls that extend into the audience, upon which projections of olive groves flash, while scores of flowers hang from the ceiling. (Projections are by Austin Switser. lighting by Scott Zielinski).
Ultimately, Giuliano caves into the grooms, who enforce a wedding date as piles of Tiffany gift boxes accumulate onstage. Meanwhile, Thyona secretly unites her sisters into a bloody vow to murder their husbands on their wedding night. As the ceremony commences and Handel’s procession plays, projections of all fifty brides and fifty grooms flank the theatre walls. It’s a sensational visual coup de théâtre, followed by a wild wedding party that explodes into chaos.
The last time I saw Big Love (at BAM in 2001), Mee’s companion pieces – First Love and True Love – were also playing in New York theatres that season. Mee’s lavish treatment of this eternal topic remains unapologetic and enduring, owing to its originality, vitality, and heart. After all, as Bella says: “Love cannot be wrong. It trumps all.”
Big Love by Charles Mee, directed by Tina Landau, at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, playing now through March 15 www.signaturetheatre.org
*Photo: T. Charles Erickson