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A CurtainUp Review
Big Love

By Dave Lohrey

If we cannot embrace another what hope do we have of life?
--- Bella

If things continue as they are going, we shall very likely look back at this period in American theatre history as the Mee generation. Charles L. Mee historian turned playwright has works in various stages of development in virtually every American city. This week his new play, Big Love, opened at BAM in Brooklyn after a long journey starting at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, and ending most recently at the Goodman in Chicago. Its NY premiere coincides with the opening of True Love at the Zipper Theatre.

Based on The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus, Big Love takes an ancient plot and updates it. In the process, he creates an explosively theatrical hybrid, the vaudevillian tragicomedy. It is, to say the least, a most improbable combination, but it works, gloriously.

Mee turns the ancient story of fifty brides who rebel against their arranged marriages to fifty grooms into nothing less than a theatrical free-for-all. How Mee handles this explosive material, turning it at once into a somber mediation on the ancient themes of justice and revenge and at the same time into a wild celebration of the enduring power of love, is nothing less than inspiring. From the arrival in Italy of the fleeing brides as they invade and occupy the grand villa they mistake for a hotel to the maniacal dance macabre of the homicidal brides and their bloodied grooms at play's end, this production takes its audience for a ride which literally leaves it gasping. Exhilarating is too weak a word to capture Big Love's full force.

The age-old battle of the sexes found in Aeschylus is 'married' by Mee to various contemporary American themes, such as domestic abuse, date rape, and gender inequality. Much of the play is taken up in an exhaustive and exhausting demonstration of just how deeply gender animosities can grow and how horrifying the consequences can be when a balance is not found. Mee's dramatic solution to the carnage and mayhem is a trial coda at the end of the play in which the one bride who dared to love rather than kill her groom is called to answer for breaking the loyalty pact she made with her sisters. Presided over by their host's mother, the trial takes up the issues of sexual coercion and the irrational power of love, and ends in a cathartic love fest.

The fuse is lit when the three sisters enter the seemingly welcoming villa. The first bride, Lydia (Carolyn Baeumler), enters the stage, steps stark naked out of her bridal gown and plunges into an awaiting bath. From here she negotiates her stay with the host Piero (J. Michael Flynn), his gay son (Adrian Danzig), and finally with grandma Bella (Lauren Klein). With Bella's OK, Lydia, Thyona (K.J. Sanchez), and Olympia (Aimee Guillot) begin to settle in. They are then abruptly visited by their airborne grooms, Nikos (Bruce McKenzie), Constantine (Mark Zeisler), and Oed (J. Matthew Jenkins), who have come via helicopter to make their claims. Here the two opposing sides find their voices in the extreme positions of Thyona and Contantine. When Piero leads the men away for a smoke, the women literally flip out, turning cartwheels and hurling themselves about the padded stage, while declaiming anti-male invectives. Later, the men will have their turn on the mat. This is an extraordinarily successful way of making physical and therefore dramatically comprehensible the mental torment of the soon-to-be enslaved brides and their equally confused, if powerful, male counterparts.

Mee has a special knack for turning human emotion into vital stage pictures. One of the simplest is the long monologue delivered by Bella when she enters the stage carrying a basket of freshly picked tomatoes. As she sits with her female guests, she tells them about her large family. One by one she describes her sons, first-born to last, and in the process either caresses, squeezes, or smashes a tomato to indicate her conflicted heart. Needless to say, many of the tomatoes end up on the floor.

Les Waters and his production team take full advantage of the space at BAM. There are numerous off-stage entrances and exits, which have the effect of making the audience feel part of the ensemble. This is symbolized at the end of the play when Lydia is allowed to marry Nikos and following their wedding throws her bouquet to the audience. To show their involvement, the audience alternatively laughs, hisses, and gasps, at times in horror, and at others in delight. We are not mere spectators but participants. Les Waters directs an extraordinary cast whose talents go far beyond mere acting. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call Mr. Waters a coach. If so, he and his team will not be up for a Tony this year, but Olympic Gold.

First Love
True Love

Playwright: Charles L. Mee.
Director: Les Waters.

Cast: Carolyn Baeumler, Tony Speciale, Aimee Guillot, K.J. Sanchez, Lauren Klein, J. Michael Flynn, Bruce McKenzie, Mark Zeisler, J. Matthew Jenkins, Amy Landecker, Lusia Strus, Adrian Danzig, Chuck Stubbings.
Set Design: Annie Smart.
Costume Design: James Schuette.
Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel.
Sound Design: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen.
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, without intermission
The Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Lichtenstein Theatre, 80 St. Mark's Place, New York, (212) 598-9802
11/30/2001 -- 12/1/2001, 12/4 - 12/8, at 7:30pm; 12/2 & 12/9 at 3pm; 12/8 at 2pm.
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 12/2/01.
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