Commissioned by the Actors Theater of Louisville for its 2000 Humana Festival of New Plays, Charles L. Mee’s “Big Love” takes off from Aeschylus’ 2,491-year-old tragedy “The Suppliant Women” as if it were a trampoline, bouncing and cavorting merrily into contemporary absurdism, surrealism and comic-strip primary emotional colors. Complete with riffs on life, love and the battle of the sexes, plus towering tantrums in which the play’s brides, and later their grooms, hurl themselves repeatedly onto the stage floor, Mee’s play is never less than lively. And, if taken on its own terms — i.e., not seriously — it’s a welcome shot in the arm to Long Wharf Theater’s stumbling 2000-01 season, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
“Big Love” is also infinitely more entertaining than Mee’s “Full Circle” (aka “The Berlin Circle”), his tedious, overblown take on “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” probably because “Big Love” has more of a sense of humor about itself.
Les Waters directs briskly, as he did in Louisville. Featuring many actors from the original staging, this co-production is scheduled to play California’s Berkeley Rep April 20-June 10, after it completes its LWT run April 1.
Its cast is unlikely to gain weight in the meantime, so physical is the staging, starting with a runaway bride hurtling onstage, stripping naked and jumping into a conveniently placed bathtub.
The cast copes untiringly with the production’s physical demands, though a group of actresses with greater comedic skill and style could be wished for as the brides-to-be. Latter represent the play’s 50 sisters, on the run from the grooms to whom they were betrothed before they were born.
The brides have fled Greece to Italy. Lydia (Carolyn Baeumler), the bride in the bath, says she thought she had arrived at a hotel, but the bathtub turns out to belong to a privately owned Italian palazzo, and the brides entreat its owner to save them from their fate worse than death.
Music is used throughout the production, ranging from familiar classics, including Pachelbel’s Canon and the Wedding March to the pop song “You Don’t Own Me” (warbled, of course, by the brides-to-be) and Broadway’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
The Rodgers and Hart classic from “Pal Joey” is sweetly sung, halfway through the play, by Giuliano (Tony Speciale), the palazzo owner’s gay young son, who has a Barbie and Ken collection. There’s no particular reason for the song to be here — expect, presumably, to prove that Hart’s lyrics are as apt to a homosexual interpretation as a heterosexual one.
The brides’ betrotheds, who have succeeded in America, arrive via a noisy helicopter, and the battle escalates, with Thyona (K.J. Sanchez), a man-hater who believes that “boy babies should be flushed down the toilet at birth,” opting to speak for all the young women.
She convinces them to murder their husbands on their wedding night, which leads to a riotously funny scene of multiple murder that begins with a wedding-cake food fight, segues into simulated sex acts and ends with lavishly gory deaths. All the grooms are killed except one — Lydia’s bumblingly affectionate Nikos (a delightfully daft Bruce McKenzie).
Some of Mee’s more serious speeches along the way may go on a mite too long and be a mite too obvious, just as those acrobatic displays on the stage floor begin to be repetitive. But all told, “Big Love” is a cheerfully anarchic bit of fluff.
And while the director and cast certainly keep things moving, the play might be even more entertaining if it were acted and directed in real high style.
No point calling it a black comedy, despite its multiple murders, because everything is so clearly in fun, and the proceedings end with a sentimental pronouncement from Giuliano’s down-to-earth grandmother (Lauren Klein, who is also fine as a sophisticated house guest at the palazzo).
Annie Smart has designed an amusingly surreal (somewhat Magritte-esque) set dominated by a padded pink-plastic floor, a cloud-flecked blue sky and a chandelier over the bathtub.
The costumes, for the most part, are bridal gowns and formal men’s wear. And the production’s vivid physical presence has clearly benefited from the contributions of Jean Isaacs (movement) and K.J. Sanchez (dance/fight captain).