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Love, Love, Love 

Jumping gleefully into theater's favorite panacea

Wednesday, May 9 2001
Gore Vidal proposed in 1959 that love "be adopted as the American theater's official anthem. Just name your problem, sit back and let love solve it: race prejudice, foreign relations -- even Job reeling beneath the unkind attentions of a dubious Yale God gets off the hook at the end through Love." That Yale reference is mysterious now, but the rest holds up. Love is still the grand panacea in American popular theater -- think of Ragtime's finale or all of Wit -- especially when it washes over and softens Thought like warm seawater.

Charles Mee jumps gleefully into this tradition with Big Love. He's updated the oldest play in the Western canon, Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, imagined a workable ending to the trilogy Suppliant once belonged to, then condensed the story and added a couple of songs. The result is a thoroughly modern show that makes fun of love, Broadway, gender politics, and Aeschylus in one brief (100-minute) stroke.

The Suppliant trilogy tells the story of 50 virgins unwillingly betrothed to their 50 cousins. The women escape to Argos for asylum, where the king refuses to help. When the cousins show up expecting suppliance -- and marriage -- the women give in, but plot a wedding-night mass murder. The plan is complicated when one virgin falls in love. She fails to kill her groom, and the trilogy ends with a trial. Aeschylus passes judgment on the 49 murderesses and the one turncoat bride.

Mee shifts Argos to Italy, and makes the king a rich playboy named Piero, who owns an enormous beach villa. The women show up in wedding dresses. The jilted cousin-husbands arrive in a helicopter, wearing tuxedos under their military jumpsuits. Piero declines to defend the women. A huge Italian wedding proceeds the following day, but wedding-night sex for 49 of the grooms becomes a freewheeling orgy of violence, and in the final blood- and wedding cake- smeared scene, Bella -- Piero's peasant mother -- passes judgment on the modern brides with a very funny speech about love.

A bare summary can't explain why this play went over so well at last year's Humana Festival in Louisville. Neither, exactly, can the script. Anyone who saw Mee's Summertime at the Magic will know what I mean when I say most of his characters grow boring as soon as they try to give an earnest speech. Mee is a cartoonist; he writes outrageous comedy on serious themes. But the pace of his shtick hardly works for pathos or seriousness. Big Love is better than Summertime only because it's funnier: The shtick is so strong it keeps you engaged.

The stage is padded with a pink, extra-soft wrestling mat. The most memorable scenes, to put this in a way that won't ruin the show, involve low-level stunts and a kind of choreography (by Jean Isaacs). Grooms and brides torture themselves over the impossible, intractable incomprehensibilities of the opposite sex, and one of the scenes, involving brides, might be rendered as follows: "I just want a man to listen to me! [THUMP] And talk to me! [THUMP] And send me flowers! [THUMP] Why can't a man be more like a woman?! [THUMP]"

That gives too much away. But it's awfully funny.

Most of the acting is just passable, but I blame this on the script: Aimée Guillot, K.J. Sanchez, J. Matthew Jenkins, and, to a lesser extent, Carolyn Baeumler line-read because there's no other way to get through the lines. The grand exception is Lauren Klein, who plays Bella, the peasant mother, as well as a frightening tourist named Eleanor. As Bella, Klein gives a speech about her large family that echoes "Eleven Sons," the Kafka story. She represents each son with a tomato pulled from her basket, and treats some tomatoes more carefully than others. Klein delivers Bella's jokes with no apparent consciousness that she's making an audience laugh. She also gives a manic speech as Eleanor about "life," with a capital L. Clench-mouthed and smiling in a flowery dress, discussing sunshine, tomatoes, and sex in the afternoon, she's a hilarious and devastating caricature of denial in middle age. There was a woman like her in Summertime, too, come to think of it -- Mee has a talent for depicting the sort of Americans you meet in Italy.

Bruce McKenzie is the other outstanding actor. He plays Nikos, the fumbling and stuttering groom who survives the wedding-night massacre. He and Carolyn Baeumler, as Lydia the merciful bride, perform a delicate, spotlit, wordless series of motions, like a pas de deux, that evokes falling in love.

This production of Big Love is transplanted from Humana with nearly the same cast; Berkeley Rep has co-produced it with the Long Wharf Theater of New Haven. The show isn't perfect. In down moments it's tedious and the songs are forgettable, but Les Waters has directed with enough energy to minimize these inherent problems. And Bella's final speech transcends not just the play but also its long, popular-American tradition: "Of all the human qualities," she says, "the greatest is sympathy. For dirty bogs ... Irish linen ... In spring, the dawn ... Goat dung." Etc.


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