Russ Hunt's Reviews

Big Love
by Charles Mee

Theatre St. Thomas
March 2003

He's hardly a household name; he's not nearly as well known, even, as Caryl Churchill: but for my money, Charles Mee is one of the most interesting, challenging, and exciting playwrights currently working. When Cordula Quint decided to put on his Big Love, I was both excited and apprehensive: the play is radically challenging, and -- like his Full Circle, which I saw in Boston three years ago -- demands a level of commitment and risk-taking that it's not always easy to pull out of amateur companies. Further, it's uncompromising in its requirement for attention to the nuances of a text, at the same moment, often, as it asks actors to put forth entirely unreasonable levels of physical energy.

Based, extremely loosely, on Aeschylus's The Suppliant Women, Big Love has as its premise an arranged mass marriage between 50 women ("Fifteen?" asks a bystander, incredulously. "No, fifty," explains one of them) and their fifty cousins, somewhere in Greece. The brides have "escaped" and show up at a villa in Italy, looking for refuge. The rest of the play follows their relations with their not entirely willing hosts and with the fifty would-be bridegrooms, who arrive almost immediately, via helicopters, to take them back.

For us, the women are represented by Lydia, who is in some ways the leader, Thyona, a bloodthirsty radical feminist ("boy babies should be flushed down the toilet at birth"), and Olympia, who's not quite sure that, after all, she doesn't actually want to get married ("I've known men who think, oh, a woman, I'd like to take care of her"). They're balanced by three men, led by Constantine, an archetypal male fascist pig ("Life is rape. No one asks to be born. No one asks to die. We are all taken by force, all the time." "We're not here to negotiate"), Nikos, who'd really rather be reasonable ("My brothers and I, we've counted on this all our lives"), and the mostly silent Oed.

Like the work of Caryl Churchill and Bertolt Brecht, the writers Mee most reminds me of, the play is a savage mix of exaggeration, caricature, blatant symbol, and occasional moments of sanity and tenderness, with real people actually talking to each other. It slews madly back and forth between physical excess (plates crashing, tomatoes smashing, dishes breaking, bodies slamming into the floor and each other) and delicate, reasonable dialogue about things that matter. The patrician Piero, and his bumbling, helpful nephew Giuliano, who try to understand the women's plight, are balanced by the madly excessive Eleanor and Leo, who don't even notice ("Not accepting gifts? Whoever heard of such a thing? Oh, Leo, these girls! I suppose they're nervous before the wedding!"). The script, and the production, moves violently back and forth, from quiet, reasonable conversation about things like responsibility for refugees, the rights of women, the nature of men, and the nature of love, to violently choreographed, and occasionally sung, demonstrations of female rage, male physicality, and courtship. The company's control of these rhythms is powerful; when the thoughtful, gentle Giuliano or the smiling, courtly Piero are on stage, we feel the production has all the time in the world for discussion and reflection; when the men are smashing wedding gifts or the women breaking plates and hurling themselves around the floor among the shards, we know that rationality doesn't stand a chance.

The set itself is powerful, startlingly effective, and absolutely appropriate: it's a huge, featureless brilliant white square against the back wall, with a white, square apron in front for an acting space. The lighting, designed brilliantly by Chris Saad, splashes across it, changing it from a tranquil Italian coastal afternoon to a deep, azure evening, to a bloody nowhere in which brides -- all but one -- savagely kill their grooms. Equally effective is the soundscape, composed of fragments from various pieces of classical wedding music (Jeremy Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary, for instance, and Pachelbel's Canon, occasionally intermixed with the deafening roar of incoming helicopters or Joan Jett's "You Don't Own Me").

But in the last analysis, of course, it's the physical presence of the dozen cast members who make or break the show. As a group, the tightness of their choreography and the uninhibited physicality of their acting is what makes Big Love work. Though the production pulls up short of the level of excess Mee describes in this script -- there's less food, less mess, less nudity -- the violent contrasts are energizing and affecting. The "courtship" of Lydia and Nikos is, perhaps, typical: Heather Cox's reasonable, attentive Lydia listens to Derek Nason's touching, inarticulate Nikos ("but maybe this isn't quite the thing you want and really I don't want to force myself on you, you should be free to choose, I mean: obviously") with her own uncertainties ("Sometimes people don't want to fall in love. Because when you love someone it's too late to set conditions.") Just when we think, perhaps they've found something here, Lydia runs offstage and the "courtship" becomes a slapstick pursuit, racing around Jason MacLeod's wonderful, hapless, gentle Giuliano like the Marx Brothers around Margaret Dumont.

Other moments worth remembering are Terry McKinnon's gentle but iron-willed Bella, counting off her own sons like tomatoes, preserving the winners gently, dropping the losers on the floor (you couldn't help noticing that they weren't Italian tomatoes, which would have splattered: these were Superstore tomatoes, and bounced). Or the always reliable Darrell Mesheau, as the pontifical host, Piero, smiling beatifically over the chaos.

Or the moment when Andrew Hachey's wonderfully testosterone-driven Constantine, after a gut-wrenching display of male violence and incoherence among the three men, breaking things, fighting, shouting incoherently about sports and fathers and male bonding, stops and meditates for a long, thoughtful, articulate moment ("People think it's hard to be a woman; but it's not easy to be a man, the expectations people have that a man should be a civilized person . . .").

As always, though, what matters most is the ensemble; in this case, particularly, the sure, controlled swings back and forth between chaos and calm, which held the audience through the play's one, long, uninterrupted act to the "trial" of Lydia at the end for having betrayed her promise to kill her groom, and her wonderful long conversation with Thyona about justice and love ("Probably this is how people end up marrying Nazis," she says, "but I can't help it") -- and the last, almost Shakespearean, summation by Bella, who acts as judge, and forgives everybody:

For we all live together
and come to embrace
the splendid variety of life on earth
good and bad
sweet and sour
take it for what it is: the glory of life.

This is why at weddings
everybody cries
out of happiness and sorrow
regret and hope combined.

Because, in the end,
of all human qualities, the greatest is sympathy

There are, of course, problems with the production as well. One is that in the movement from violent excess to articulate, thoughtful speech, often the playwright's words get lost (as always, young actors sometimes don't make their words clear to those behind or beside them in the demanding context of the Black Box), and this is important: unlike many playwrights who use physical excess and exaggeration so intensely, Mee's speeches can be brilliantly articulate and complex, and can invite us further into the understanding of a character who might otherwise remain merely a caricature. Every word lost is a serious loss, and some were lost on opening night.

Among those that weren't, though, were Constantine's riveting "I am an American now, Olympia. . . . Do you watch television? Do you see what happens when Americans want something?" It should have come as no surprise that a play so centrally occupied with questions of male identity and macho display should have had resonance for those of us thinking about the looming deadline in Iraq, and a policy drenched in Clint Eastwood - John Wayne style testosterone.

A note from a correspondent (Sabine Cambpell): "Hey Russ, where is Thyona? She was fantastic and you barely mention her. . . . .Please please add a page or two about Thyona." Yes, she was. There's no way to give everybody their due, but I should have acknowledged the wonderful energy and passion Vivien Zelazny brought to the role, perhaps especially in that last conversation, when she spits out the phrase "All this talk of love," and continues, "in the real world , if there is no justice, there can be no love."
First comes justice,
and if there is no justice
then those who are being taken advantage of
have every right
to take their oppressors
to take those who stand in their way
and drive them across the fields
like frightened horses
to set fire to their houses
to ruin everything that comes to hand
to hurl their corpses into wells
where once there were houses . . .

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